Tuesday, July 05, 2016

TOP STORY >> Widening could run into more roadblocks

Leader senior staff writer

Area mayors are taking a closer look at the state Highway and Transportation Department’s plan to widen I-30 eight to 10 lanes over the Arkansas River bridge.

Mayors north of the river along Hwy. 67/167 seem agreed they want to lessen congestion on that highway and on I-40 and I-30 across the bridge so people in their bedroom communities can get quickly to and from work or to shopping or the medical corridor on I-630.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said he had mixed feelings about the Little Rock-North Little Rock portion. He said the project was complicated and controversial. “We’re trying to find out how the six-lane waiver or repeal would serve us…in the future,” Fletcher said.

He also asked what would happen on I-30 toward Benton. “This is not an end-all project. We need to find out how that decision would impact the grid in central Arkansas,” the mayor said.

Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert says his town had an analogous situation recently when some residents wanted to widen Ninth Street, but it could reduce parking “and cause consternation down the road.”

Regarding the highway plan through downtown Little Rock, Cypert said, “I’m beginning to think we need to do more due diligence to make it more palatable….It’s important to have a vibrant downtown. I think they have some legitimate concerns.”

Cypert says the Highway Department has promised a public meeting in Cabot on the project soon.

Many residents of Jacksonville, Sherwood, Cabot, Austin and Ward are concerned about the difficult one-mile segment of I-40 between Hwy. 67/167 and I-30 toward the Arkansas River Bridge. That section leaves local traffic weaving and merging across as many as four lanes with through traffic—much of it big trucks—in time to either continue on I-40 or to get to the Hwy. 67/167 interchange.

The state Highway and Transportation Department asked Metroplan last Wednesday for a waiver to exceed the six-lane highway limit so they can build an eight- or 10-lane Arkansas River Bridge and approaches through North Little Rock and Little Rock.

Metroplan Executive Director Jim McKenzie said staff would meet with the Regional Planning Advisory Council and the Highway Department to evaluate the justification for waiving the six-lane limit. While the department wants to know within 30 days, McKenzie said the information was not time critical.

The department says it wants public input on its two alternatives, but has not responded to an alternative popular with many downtown Little Rock businesses and residents—a boulevard style bridge which returns to grade level and is covered by grassy park-like structures through much of downtown.

Downtown Little Rock, including the River Market, is a pedestrian friendly area where hotels, apartments, condominiums and businesses are growing and some see a 10-lane bridge and approach as an impediment.

Those proponents say Highway and Transportation Director Scott Bennett has essentially told them and Metroplan, “My way or the highway.”

He has said if the department doesn’t get its waiver—or repeal the six-lane policy—the money will be used on other projects across the state.

The entire 30-Crossing project covers about 6.7 miles from the I-30, I-440, I-530 confluence in the south to the I-30, I-40, Hwy. 67/167 north terminal and is expected to cost about $631 million.

Bids will be accepted in 2018 and the project should be completed sometime in 2022.

The Highway Department says construction of a wider bridge will lessen congestion, but opponents say when you increase capacity, traffic increases and you get more congestion.

Tom Fennell of the Little Rock architecture firm Fennell/Purifoy, has designed and fine-tuned the alternative popular with many residents and organizations, but essentially ignored by the Highway Department.

Fennell says that even as other, more progressive cities and Highway Departments are tearing down big highways that interrupt their downtowns, the Highway Department may have 1950s ideas—set in concrete—that will leave them behind when it’s time to retire the next bridge.

Metroplan, the local, federally mandated metropolitan planning organization, has design standards and policies that must be followed whenever federal money is spent on a project or it involves an interstate highway.

Without approval by the Metroplan board of directors, the Highway Department can’t build a highway wider than six lanes. Bennett has asked Metroplan to amend its six-lane policy, but to expedite construction of the I-30 Crossing project, Bennett has asked Metroplan to proceed first with a waiver specific to this project.

The six-lane policy limits construction to six lanes until all interstates and state highways are built out to six lanes and feeder roads built out to handle robust traffic, according to McKenzie.

“If the Highway Department wants more lanes, it needs to look at building out the grid. We’ll have analysis at the staff level with more information on why this corridor deserves a wavier,” McKenzie said.

“There’s an argument to be made that in this short corridor, with several short and major interchanges, it’s helpful in order to handle the lane mergers and weaves,” he said.

The planning and advisory committee will want more information on what an enhanced (less ambitious) six-lane system would look like, but so far the department has refused.

“It’s not a done deal,” McKenzie said.

“If Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County are strongly opposed to an alternative, the Federal Highway Administration would have to take that seriously,” he added.

Little Rock Alderman Kathy Webb, a former state senator, has tried unsuccessfully to get the city council to oppose the highway proposal.

“This thing has a lot of moving parts, and there’s an election between now and then,” McKenzie said. “Everybody needs to be moving their heads up and down at the same time.”

The Highway Department wants to fulfill its environmental responsibilities with an environmental assessment, instead of a longer, more substantive Environment Impact Statement. There’s been talk of a lawsuit if necessary to force the EIS for a project of this importance, especially one crossing a major river.

It’s been about 10 years since any central Arkansas highway change or construction has required a complete EIS. That was the North Belt Freeway.

Fennell and others say that for the I-30 Crossing project as envisioned by the Highway Department to be at all successful, it would require billions of dollars of widening and reconfiguration of other interstates.

“No city goes quietly into a progressive future with entrenched politicians,” Fennell said.

He said the Highway Department’s plan would suck up all the highway money for the next 20 years. It would have to widen I-30 south to Benton, I-630, I-40, I-440 and I-430.

“Why are we spending all that money if it doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “They are just going to move the bottlenecks.”

Eight opponents to the plan, including Fennell and Kathy Wells, president of the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods, spoke at the meeting.

“Please call for a complete environmental impact statement as soon as possible,” Wells said.