The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department’s plan to widen Interstate 30 from I-530 to U.S. Hwy. 67 would sever River Rail service to Heifer International, the Clinton library and all points east, Jarod Varner, executive director of Rock Region METRO (formerly Central Arkansas Transit) said today and Danny Straessle, AHTD spokesman, confirmed.
A new intersection at the I-30 exit in Little Rock, as envisioned by the AHTD’s Connecting Arkansas Program’s so-called “30 Crossing” plan to expand I-30 to 10 lanes (though an 8-lane plan is theoretically still on the table), would not allow for rail, because the streetcar would move too slowly, it was explained to Varner, he said. In an interview, Varner questioned whether 18-wheelers would move any faster through the intersection than the streetcar.
Because track already laid would be abandoned, the AHTD would have to repay the Federal Transit Administration somewhere around $10 million as reimbursement for federal dollars expended to no use. A long-range plan for the River Rail envisioned transportation to points east, including the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.
Varner said 60 percent of the people riding the River Rail last Sunday got off at the Clinton Center. He said yearly ridership is about 100,000. But, he added, “when the River Rail was dreamed up, it was intended to be a starter system, not the be all, end all.” Should the AHTD plan go through, “we’ll be minimizing our ability to expand rail transit east of I-30.”
As part of the federal process for the $450 million project, the highway department will have to consider alternatives to eliminating the rail line, Varner said; to eliminate it, he said, “would fly in the face of the will of the community.”
METRO learned of the plan Sept. 1, but it was not until a transportation committee meeting held a couple of weeks ago that it was confirmed that the intersection would not allow rail, either under the 10-lane or 8-lane alternative.
The 30 Crossing plan would have other impacts on public transportation. For example, it does not include specified lanes for public transportation, though there was federal money available for it to do so. Metroplan’s Jim McKenzie also believes the expansion of the I-30 interchange — rather than the improvement of arterials that would take the pressure of Interstate 30 — will simply move the traffic problem downstream, producing other bottlenecks that will require more money to fix.
The AHTD, which won a temporary half-cent tax increase through 2023 to pay for the highway, is in a hurry to complete planning and start building; “the tax creates a political deadline,” McKenzie said. He believes the project will cost more than the $450 million the tax should produce and a $200 million grant the AHTD has applied for.
A public meeting has been set 4-7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, in the Friendly Chapel Church of the Nazarene, 116 S. Pine St. in North Little Rock.