Friday, June 01, 2012

TOP STORY >> Officials to weigh plan for freeway

Leader senior staff writer

The fate of the North Belt Freeway could be decided at the state Highway Commission meeting June 12.

That’s when Metroplan Director Jim McKenzie hopes to ask the commission to amend its existing highway plan and commit to an expedited plan that would include $6 million for the purchase of critical right of way next year. McKenzie is not yet on the agenda.

“I’m writing a letter to (Highway Commission Chairman) Madison Murphy right now, requesting the commission pass a minute order committing to provide funding in these time periods: $6 million in 2013, $36 million in 2014-2019 and $632 million for construction in the 2020-2025 time frame,” McKenzie said Thursday.

By moving the actual construction up from 2025-2030, the project would save about $43 million in inflationary costs, he said.

If it were built today — not an option — it would cost an estimated $350 million.

What will state Highway Department Director Scott E. Bennett recommend?

“I actually don’t know what my recommendation will be, or if the commission will ask me for one,” Bennett said Friday. “I’ll most likely just try to lay out the facts for them — impacts, good and bad, of either committing to build within Metroplan’s requested timeframe or not making a commitment.”


The Metroplan board, which had been widely expected to pull the plug on the proposed $700 million completion of the North Belt when it met Wednesday, instead threw the long-suffering project a lifeline — at least until that Highway Commission Meeting.

The Metroplan board this week voted overwhelmingly to proceed with the project, with Bennett abstaining.

If the right of way is not purchased before developers build hundreds of half-million-dollar homes, the freeway would not likely be affordable or practical, according to McKenzie.

“If we don’t do something now, facts on the ground will prohibit it from ever being built,” he said.

“We think it ought to be built. We’re asking them to commit or tell us we don’t have the money,” McKenzie said.

“If that’s the case, Sher-wood is off the hook, so are the landowners. and we can make (other) plans to carry the 60,000 vehicles a day (the North Belt was projected to have carried by 2030),” he said.

At the March board retreat, the 12.8-mile project, which would connect state Hwy. 440 at Hwy. 67/167 in south Jacksonville with I-40 and I-430 at Crystal Hill, seemed on life support with directors ready to carve up road funds for their areas.

The project will be kept alive after new Metroplan staff studies were reviewed and discussed.


There were no discernible “nays” in the voice-vote, but Bennett made it clear he was abstaining, and some others, like Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines, said that even with approval, the North Belt would never be built.

“It’s just not going to happen, people,” he said.

Bennett says construction of the last half of the North Belt Freeway would use 40 percent to 50 percent of available highway construction money for the entire state during its 2020-2025 buildout.

The project was first placed on the books nearly 60 years ago and some board members say if the project dies, people will look back in 50 years and wonder how they let the opportunity slip away.

McKenzie presented the board Wednesday with four options — two of which actually included the phrase “pretend to build” the North Belt Freeway.

From those, the board approved option three, which would approve about $148 million worth of projects proposed by the state Highway Department for construction be-tween now and 2030.

The department would spend $6 million securing critical North Belt Freeway right of way in 2013 and spend another $36.4 million between 2014 and 2019, with construction expenditures of $632 million between 2020 and 2025.


If built, the North Belt would provide two functions, according to Metroplan transportation planner Casey Covington.

First, it would provide easier access to jobs in West Little Rock and Maumelle to people who live in Cabot, Jacksonville, Sherwood and some unincorporated parts of north Pulaski County, and second, it would fill the gap in an interstate loop around Little Rock and North Little Rock, like the loops around major metropolitan areas.

The loop, which would be approximately 60 miles, would include parts of I-430, I-30 and Hwy. 440, including the already completed portion of the North Belt. That portion is already designated “North Belt Freeway” on Google Maps.

In the process it would lessen congestion on Hwy. 67/167, I-40 and I-30, including the Arkansas River bridge.


Nowhere does the future of the North Belt have a more immediate impact than in Sherwood, where Mayor Virginia Hillman and the city have been sued with some success by developers who are tired of waiting to begin their projects while officials wrestle with the project’s future.

Most of the construction would be in Sherwood or across — without access — Camp Robinson.

Hillman says the big question now is whether or not the Highway Commission will approve amending its highway plan as requested by the board.

“That should give a picture of whether it will be funded or not. We need to do more than chase numbers on paper,” she said.

“I would like to see it built,” she said, but if not, she wants to stop holding up development.


“I was a little shocked,” said Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher after the board voted to approve the project. “I was surprised by the final tally. I thought I might be the lone ranger (in favor).”

He said he believed that new information from Metro-plan staff helped pass the measure, as did the framing of the issue as a regional issue by Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays.

He credited Conway Mayor Tab Townsell with posing the question as an economic one, saying that companies seeking to open or relocate want to know they have a workforce of a certain size within a reasonable commute.

“If we can’t get it, the next generation is going to be wondering ‘What were they thinking,’” Fletcher said.