The state Highway and Transportation Department is all ears, it told the City Board last night at its special hearing at the Clinton Presidential Center, attended by around 300 people by my rough estimate. All options will be considered.
But, they insist, the only option that does what they want it to do — that is, cure congestion, enhance safety, be functional, which they describe as “needs” — is the 10-lane design, which Connecting Arkansas Program head and Garver engineer Jerry Holder amazingly described as not really 10 lanes. It’s just six — plus four collector-distributor lanes. Got that?
To be fair, Holder really believes that. He sees the CD lanes as different from Interstate 30, because they are basically long, long off ramps: To get to Little Rock from North Little Rock, you get in the CD lane in North Little Rock, for example. (And vice versa — you get on in Little Rock if you want to get off in North Little Rock.) That’s how long the barricaded lanes are.
Were City Directors Dean Kumpuris and Lance Hines members of Metroplan rather than Mayor Stodola, the highway would be a done deal. Kumpuris asked Holder, What would happen if Little Rock didn’t do anything except repair the bridge? Holder: “Downtown would die a slow death.” Kumpuris: “I agree with you.” But, Kumpuris added, “The thought that anything we do would kill what we have done downtown breaks my heart.” However, only Stodola has a vote on the Metroplan board, which will have to amend its transportation plan — not necessarily a done deal — before the AHTD can go forward with a design-build contract.
Hines fed Holder a question about the economic impact should the city not widen I-30. Holder said his best answer was based on his own “life experience”: When he was dating his now wife in 1985, he said, downtown Dallas was dead. Now, he said, thanks the Central Expressway (I-75) and the Highway 35 tollway downtown, Dallas has seen more growth recently “than in the past 30 years.” AHTD Director Scott Bennett added that a Duke University study said highway construction added 22,000 jobs for every billion dollars spent, which would translate to about 13,000 jobs from the I-30 project, a.k.a. 30 Crossing. Half, he conceded, would be construction jobs. Also, he said, “every dollar invested returns three and a half in economic impact” — unmatched, he said, by other investments.
Director Gene Fortson also falls in the pro group, apparently: The only concern he raised last night was about the “dumping of large amounts of traffic on West Second Street.” Indeed, the AHTD plan to direct traffic to LaHarpe via Second and State Street rather than its current route that allows a right turn on Cumberland was widely criticized. In response, Holder said he plans to hole up behind locked doors for a week before Thanksgiving with Dallas highway engineers to find a plan that would solve the problem of getting traffic to La Harpe while making, as the city requested, the LaHarpe, Cumberland, Markham and President Clinton intersection safer.
To that, Stodola said he’d like to lock the engineers in a room until they could figure out a way to make Fourth or Sixth streets the exit into Little off I-30, which got a lot of laughs, including from Holder, who said that conjured up a picture he didn’t much like. The 30 Crossing engineers have already crossed off Stodola’s wish, saying it is not possible.
Rebecca Engstrom, a resident of downtown and the first person from the audience to speak — only to the directors; no one was allowed to address the AHTD people — got thunderous applause when she said that one of her concerns was “using Dallas planners” to come up with any solution to problems engendered by the 30 Crossing design. “Dallas is a disaster,” she said.
Kathy Wells, speaking for the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, handed out a statement that she also read to the board:
Mayor Stodola, we recognize that you have a pivotal role in this project. We intend to make such a strong case against the current proposal that you will agree, and vote No, when the Metroplan Board takes up a state request for a waiver of its six-lane limit for highways, so 10 lanes could be built. As the Board member and officeholder where the project would be built, your position will guide Board action. They will uphold you. Stop this bad plan and bad financing.
If history is an example, Wells could be right about Stodola being the linchpin: The mayor of Sherwood helped put the first quietus on the North Belt freeway.