Tuesday, December 27, 2016

TOP STORY >> A visionary planner retires

Leader senior staff writer

In July 1988, Ronald Reagan was in the final months of his presidency, the Supreme Court told private clubs they couldn’t discriminate against women and minorities and “Die Hard” topped the box office. Apple wouldn’t introduce the iPhone for another 20 years and Jim McKenzie was chosen out of a pool of 40 applicants as executive director of Metroplan.

McKenzie was head of his own consulting firm when he was hired.


Since then, McKenzie has been at the center of many of the most important changes and decisions affecting central Arkansas residents and the area’s development.

By federal law, additions and changes to the interstate highway system and other roads and transportation plans in central Arkansas must be studied and approved by Metroplan before any federal money can be allocated for q!
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The reach of McKenzie and Metroplan’s professional staff has extended far beyond work with the state Highway Department on projects such as the ill-fated North Belt Freeway.


Now, with the state Highway and Transportation Department, it is funding a $500,000 feasibility study of a proposed Hwy. 89 corridor that could cobble together portions of Hwy. 89 with other roads to create an east-west route across part of Lonoke County and northern Pulaski County. Such an east-west corridor is complicated by Little Rock Air Force Base, Camp Meto, all interrupting the most straightforward designs.

But under McKenzie, who has “retired” and is driving to visit grandchildren in Florida, Metroplan has become much more involved in local communities. It’s helping them locate and reserve water in area lakes, starting and guiding the Mid-Arkansas Water Alliance (MAWA). Metroplan draws up options for new school district attendance zones after each new census or when other circumstances demand it.


For example, when Jacksonville detached its new school district from Pulaski County Special School Districts, new school board zones had to be created for each, and each zone has approximately the same number of residents as the others.

That way, each resident’s vote counts equally.

Metroplan, as the Central Arkansas’ federally mandated metropolitan planning organization, has expanded from 13 local governments to 29, again with a strong emphasis on transportation.

Outgoing Conway Mayor Tab Townsell has been tapped to take McKenzie’s place.

“Jim was a true professional,” said Buddy Villines, who as former Little Rock mayor and Pulaski County judge worked with McKenzie for nearly three decades. “He had the intelligence and skills to really understand public transportation system and became an advocate for Central Arkansas in the process.”

“He had a good analytical mind,” Villines said. “He could look at complex issues and articulate a position.”

“He did the research to find out what the options really were,” Villines said, “and brought them to the table.”

Once a decision to proceed is made, McKenzie understood the steps needed to actualize the decision.


Meanwhile, Central Arkansas and Metroplan have not run out of challenges to keep the board and Townsell, the new director, busy.

‘The future keeps coming at you,” said McKenzie.

Unfinished business includes the rail-grade separations and a way to move vehicle traffic east-and west, north of the Arkansas River and I-40. Those include new overpasses on Taylor Loop Road in Little Rock and also on Hwy. 89 near Cabot.

The Highway Department and Metroplan have an agreement to each pay half of a feasibility study on the Hwy. 89 corridor study that could cost as much as $500,000 to create a new east-west road across the top of Pulaski County.

Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert, Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher and Ward Mayor Art Brooke—the incoming president of the Metroplan board—are behind the effort to create the new east-west routes now that the North Belt Freeway is dead after about 50 years worth of false starts. “It just got too expensive,” McKenzie said.

He said one challenge for the future was to build a fourth downtown Little Rock bridge over the Arkansas River.


Currently, only the I-30 bridge, the Main Street Bridge and the I-430 overpass move traffic across the river, with the Broadway Bridge closed for rebuilding. McKenzie said attention should be paid to another bridge, this one at Chester Street.

One of the biggest challenges for the future is to come up with a dedicated funding mechanism for transportation, he said. The law now supports the formation of regional transportation authorities with taxing authority, but so far, no one has done it. There have been two blue-ribbon studies into funding highways, but little has been done.

If the federal government and the state aren’t going to do it, Central Arkansas must do it with a regional transportation mobility authority, he said.

“This country has trillions of dollars of infrastructure needs, and while President-elect Donald Trump has proposed that kind of effort, the Republican Party has informed him they don’t do big tax increases to pay for ambitious projects,” McKenzie said.

Without money, the existing infrastructure will atrophy, McKenzie said.


The Arkansas River bike and pedestrian trail loop needs to be completed at Dillard’s Little Rock headquarters and extended to Pinnacle Mountain, he said.

Treading where angels fear to go, McKenzie said it looks like 30 Crossing, the controversial Highway Department plan to rebuild the I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River, will be similar to what it is now, but much wider.

Many activists and downtown residents are opposed to the Highway Department’s plan and in favor of a slower, less obtrusive solution designed more like a boulevard.

McKenzie said the activists are unlikely to get what they want, but that the Highway Department already made several changes to address some of their concerns.

“It could work,” McKenzie said, but you’re going to have to go slower and change all the traffic patterns. The city as a whole is not ready for something that dramatic.”

He said litigation might be the only chance for those opposed to the Highway Department’s plan.


Among the 23 waterworks or cities in MAWA are Jacksonville Water Works, Lonoke White Public Water, Cabot, Bryant, Conway, Ward and Central Arkansas Water.

Among accomplishments—For Metro 2020, the area’s long-range transportation plan, the need to separate rail traffic from cars was identified as a top priority. A 100-car train could stand, a barrier between a school and the local ambulance for instance, and the board and staff identified 12 rail-grade separations as priorities. In other words the goal was to build 12 traffic overpasses by 2020.

“Nine are done or under construction,” McKenzie said, two—including one on JP Wright Loop Road in Jack-sonville and one on new construction on Hwy. 89 near Cabot are next up. The 12th one has been cancelled, he said.


During his tenure, the policy of Metroplan and the state Highway Department became to widen all area highways to—but not beyond—six lanes. Part of that $2 billion to $2.5 billion project should be familiar to residents of Jacksonville, Ward, Austin and Cabot as they commute to and from Little Rock and North Little Rock. Hwy. 67-167 had been undergoing widening for years—a perpetual construction site between I-40 and Cabot.

A second goal was to build out a robust regional arterial network, McKenzie said.

“Shortly after I got the job,” McKenzie said, “Little Rock pulled out of the regional water compact, which was to reserve future water allocation at Lake DeGray.”

“Turf questions raised their head,” McKenzie said, “in Little Rock and North Little Rock, so Joe Ford at the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, said, ‘Boys, this is bad for business,’” McKenzie recalled, and Metroplan and McKenzie launched MAWA.

Twelve years later, MAWA now works with 23 water utilities in seven counties and have allocations at Lake Ouachita and Greer’s Ferry Lake.

From Lake Ouachita alone, the group has reserved an allocation sufficient to draw 30 million gallons a day.


“It was hard to do and I’m proud of the role we played,” he said.

Metroplan was an advocate, and in some cases a pass-through for federal money for public transportation. That includes the Central Arkansas Transit Authority, rebranded Rock Region Transit, and the old-timey street cars.

McKenzie said the streetcar system is currently designed for tourism, but needs to be expanded for basic transportation.

“We helped Rock Region Transit implement a GPS system that tracks the buses and lets riders along the route know when to expect the next bus,” McKenzie said.

The transit system now can collect data on where and when riders get on and off to help tailor bus routes to be most efficient.

With Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines supplying much of the impetus, Metroplan provided the vehicle that helped moved forward the Big Dam Bridge, the pedestrian bridge between North Little Rock and Little Rock over the Arkansas River. Metroplan provided half the money for the project.

The Big Dam Bridge connected the north and south sides of the river trail. It is vital to bike tourism, he said.

“It makes a statement about Little Rock to millinials who often look for a place to live before a job,” McKenzie said.

“None of this is stuff I did or we did alone,” McKenzie said. “We did it to help member governments.”


Metroplan helped implement design standards for road construction to local government planners. They helped Mayor Townsell, McKenzie’s successor—reimagine Dave Ward Drive in Conway as a bifurcated four-lane road with a traffic circle rather than a more dangerous five-lane road with a center turning lane. The bifurcated road with a raised median and raised access increased the traffic capacity 30 to 40 percent, Townsell said.

“Jim brings a level of professionalism and expansive knowledge of planning and transportation,” Townsell said. “He brings a passion for making our transportation and planning decisions the best they can be to make a better world.”

Townsell said navigating the waters of the I-30 Crossing at the Arkansas River will make a huge, profound impact on downtown Little Rock and its resurgence, and could also affect the vision of that community—a long-range plan called “Imagine Central Arkansas.”


“Looking from 50,000 feet, McKenzie said, “the big picture, massive change is looming and if we, as a people don’t prepare and adapt, we will be in a lot of trouble.”

The next big threat to human civilization is climate change, he said, especially to coastlines near sea level. If those flood, there will be mass migration inland.

The Mississippi River delta is prime farmland, and due to rising seas that land, as well as agricultural lands in Florida and California, could flood and people could get hungry.

Climate change, drought and resulting food shortages have wreaked havoc elsewhere, he said.

Climate scientists project the impact to hit about 2100, but the tipping points are sooner, he said. “After that, you go down hill in a hurry.”

Increasingly, technology and labor-saving devices will put a strain on the employment and well being of those in the workforce, McKenzie warned.

Uber and truck builders are developing GPS vehicles that don’t need a human at the wheel, McKenzie pointed out.

By 2021, half of new cars will talk to each other.


Currently, there are 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. Those are well-paying middle class jobs that could begin disappearing in a decade.

Those are essentially among the many jobs that will be replaced by robots or technology.

“Folks are going to get desperate,” McKenzie said.

He also expects artificial intelligence to replace a lot of white-collar jobs.

“People need to get refocused and retrained or we will be in a world of heat. We need meaningful work or we are going to get in trouble,” he said.

Futurists and economists are beginning to say that the government will have to pay people a living allowance because there won’t be enough jobs.


As residents in Central Arkansas embraced the suburban life, sidewalks fell by the wayside.

“I have spent my career advocating sidewalks,” McKenzie said. “It is an issue of design and of safety.”

On McKenzie’s watch, Metroplan took responsibility with the state Health Department and the state Department of Pollution Control and Ecology, and together they tracked ozone levels and alerted the public when the levels were unhealthy to be active outdoors.

If the ozone levels get too high, the Federal Highway Administration can stop funding road construction or new industrial development.

“Only by luck have we avoided non-attainment,” he said.

“Clean coal is an oxymoron,” he said.