Friday, April 06, 2012

TOP STORY >> Judge puts nail in coffin for North Belt

Leader senior staff writer

Enthusiasm for the North Belt Freeway has repeatedly rallied and failed over the 64 years since it first appeared on the Pulaski County master plan.

But now — half-built and on life support after a judge ruled a subdivision can go on the route — the Metroplan board of directors is reaching for the plug and members of the family are angling for a share of the spoils.

Forecast to cost $50 million in 1991, the project has been kicked down the road until it’s now estimated to cost $701 million if built in the 2020-2030 time frame. A lot of competing interests could find other uses for that money, and in Sherwood a lot of prime development land is out of play.

The short-term question is whether or not to fund purchase of more right of way for the North Belt to protect the corridor from development. Failure to do so now is conceded to signal the end the North Belt’s prospects and the once-popular project seems to be short of defenders.

The highway commission has signaled that it’s ready to move on without the North Belt.

Calling it “a pretty expensive roadway,” Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie told the board Wednesday, “Life is about choices. Unless the right of way is purchased in the foreseeable future, it won’t get built. The Highway Department isn’t going to add to the cost by condemning $400,000 houses.”

Many in Sherwood would like to see the North Belt go away, allowing for greater and more immediate development.

There was no shortage of suggested road projects in lieu of the North Belt, and Metroplan staff was directed to preliminarily investigate those and report to the board.


North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hayes said he’d rather see a four-lane connection from I-40/I-430 — which would have been the end of the North Belt — to Hwy. 365.

Others would add a four-lane highway to Hwy. 107 from the current end of Hwy. 440 at Hwy. 67/167.

Widening and further development of Hwy. 89 or Hwy. 64 further north were suggested as contributing to east-west traffic movement. Both of those are on the Regional Arterial Network with plans for improvement.

“We’d like to see it, but we all have priorities,” said Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher.


“Our greater need is the Vandenberg interchange. I’ve got people sitting six or seven lights (to get through the intersection),” Fletcher said. “We could add an interchange at Cofelt Road. If I have to choose (between the North Belt and Vandenberg), Vandenberg is the more immediate need.”

“It’s not that it’s not needed or not ever going to be needed, but with the widening of I-40, and work on Hwy. 67/167, it takes away some of that need,” said Highway Department director Scott Bennett.

There is great pressure from developers and landowners in Sherwood north of Hwy. 107, and one recently got a preliminary favorable ruling from Pulaski County Judge Chris Piazza that requires the Sherwood Planning Commission to accept a several-hundred unit plat for a developer.

Steve Deere, through his Sherwood Land Company and Deere LLC, is planning a development comprising 573 single- family homes, 156 town homes and 312 apartments.


The North Belt project is on the Metroplan unconstrained wish list for 2020-2030 at a projected cost of about $700 million, but only about $20 million has actually made the financially constrained list for between now and 2019. In 1991, the project would have cost only about $50 million, McKenzie said.

Sherwood is a growing bedroom community largely bounded by North Little Rock, Camp Robinson and the limited access Hwy. 67/167. The North Belt not only would cut through prime remaining underdeveloped land, but it would cut that land off from “old” Sherwood.

“It’s going to divide our city,” said Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman. “If we’re going to build it, build it. We’re getting either development or the North Belt. If there’s no commitment to buy the right-of-way, there’s no commitment to the North Belt.”

Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines said it isn’t fair to deny Sherwood the development for another 30 years.

The first half of the freeway — known as Hwy. 440 and completed in 2003 at a cost of $63 million — runs from I-40 east of Little Rock to Hwy. 67/167 between Sherwood and Jacksonville.

Villines also said it was time to think about moving people, not moving cars.


“I’m having heartburn,” said Metroplan deputy director Richard Magee. He said most highway projects in that end of the country had been designed assuming eventual construction of the North Belt—most obviously its first half. He said changes to Brockington Road would probably have been much more ambitious, as well as the Brookswood flyover.

“When we change the assumptions, it changes everything on land use, transportation and employment planning,” said Magee.

“Its going to require a lot more than you guys are thinking. It puts a lot of current projects in jeopardy,” he warned.


The real value of completion of the North Belt is not for an outer belt around Little Rock and North Little Rock for through traffic, but for east-west movement in Pulaski County. Board members—mostly county judges and mayors in central Arkansas—were told that the original intent of the North Belt was to help residents of Cabot, Sherwood and Jacksonville get to work in west Little Rock, particularly in the hospital and medical corridor along I-630.

Improvements, recent and planned, to Hwy. 67/167, I-40 and I-630 have reduced that need, according to Metroplan transportation planner Casey Covington.

Hwy. 67/167 in the past few years has been widened to three lanes both directions between I-40 north past Hwy. 440 to Redmond Road in Jacksonville.

With widening of Hwy. 67 and I-40, there’s not a lot of time savings by going with the North Belt, Covington said. But 20 or 30 years in future, “you’re going to be adding more traffic, congestion and it will be needed,” he said.

Bids to replace and widen the Hwy. 67/167 overpasses at Redmond Road and Main Street in Jacksonville will be let in 2013 at an estimated cost of $17.2 million. But another $15 million worth of widening to that corridor from Jacksonville toward Cabot is part of a High-way Department proposal currently before the Metroplan board.