State Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, is requesting a joint meeting of the Senate Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs Committee and the House Public Transportation Committee to review and discuss the highway problems that occurred across the state following Sunday’s ice storm.
According to a letter from Ingram and State Senator Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, the meeting will focus on the issues that occurred along the Interstate 40 and Interstate 55 corridors, along with highways in northern Arkansas and near the southern Missouri borders.
Ingram said Wednesday he was not sure if Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department officials could have done anything different to address the issues, but said he felt the meeting was necessary to determine if better preparations could be made in the future.
“I’ve drafted a letter asking for a joint committee meeting to look into what has happened with the highways across the state and particularly the situation over in Eastern Arkansas which left thousands of people stranded for days on I-40 and I-55. We know that you can never be fully prepared for a situation like we saw over the weekend, but we also need to learn if there are things that we could have done better or prepared better so that we can be in a better position to address an issue such as this if it arises in the future,” said Ingram.
“No one was expecting this storm to have this much of an impact, and I feel the situation was probably worsened, particularly on I-55, when
Tennessee Highway officials decided to close the Mississippi River bridge over at Dyersburg and pushed all of that traffic onto I-55,” said Ingram. “It also didn’t help that the areas that were hardest hit are areas where we have major construction projects under way. I don’t really know what we could have done different, which is why I feel this meeting is necessary.”
Ray Woodruff, Zone 1 Engineer with AHTD, reserved most of his comments, but said officials in District 1 did what they could to prepare for the storm and address the issues after the storm.
“We did everything we could with the equipment and the material that we had available to us, and that’s all I think I can say on that issue at this time,” said Woodruff.
In an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story, Gov. Mike Beebe questioned the response from the Highway Department as a whole.
“Our anecdotal evidence and photographs that have been provided to us suggest that other states had a better time, an easier time, of tackling the problem than we apparently did. So it is not acceptable,” said Beebe in the Democrat-Gazette story.
“I mobilized some folks a lot faster than the Highway Department did. When I found out that the Highway Department hadn’t sent crews from other areas of the state until 11 or 12 yesterday (daytime Tuesday), I was pretty upset about that. We (had) the National Guard alerted,” he continued.
National Guard teams assisted Arkansas State Police troops in Eastern Arkansas with providing stranded motorists on both interstates with food and water. Officials with Arkansas Game and Fish also assisted motorists by providing gas to those in need. According to officials with Troop D in St. Francis County, the sheriff’s department also assisted with the effort. The Democrat-Gazette reported that several Blytheville residents pitched in to help those stranded on I-55.
Locally, Woodruff said I-40 and the vast majority of the primary state highways were clear this morning as crews began to shift their efforts to clearing secondary state highways.
“The interstate and the primary highways are pretty clear at this point. We had a couple of little small patches on Hwy. 1, north of Forrest City, early this morning, but those may be gone at this point,” said Woodruff just after 8 a.m.
“Now, we’re going to start working on the secondary highways trying to clear those, because we haven’t touched them to this point. Anytime we have a situation like this, our efforts start on the interstate, then we shift to the primary highways, and then we work our way back to the secondary highways,” he said.
Road conditions have forced most area schools to close this week and also forced some motorists to take shelter at the Forrest City Civic Center and Larry S. Bryant Multi-purpose Center.