Metroplan Director Jim McKenzie, with an assist from transportation study director Casey Covington, stood before the City Board for two hours tonight talking about Metroplan’s Imagine Central Arkansas plan and explaining the impact of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation’s $600 million plan to widen a 7-mile corridor of I-30 to 10 lanes.

Metroplan’s long-range plan for Central Arkansas calls for a limit of six lanes on this section of I-30, using improved arterials and public transportation as congestion relief. It will have to change its federally mandated plan before the AHTD can expand the concrete river that divides Little Rock’s downtown. The Metroplan board could amend the plan to allow 10 lanes, or could go for eight lanes, as the AHTD is theoretically studying as an alternative. Or it could say AHTD has to rework the I-30 plan, which includes replacing the bridge, and stick to six lanes.

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The most intriguing question put to McKenzie tonight came from Director Kathy Webb who said that, based on talk she’s heard, that if Metroplan doesn’t go along with the AHTD’s proposed widening, Central Arkansas could lose future highway spending. (The Times has heard rumors of such threats as well.) “What are the odds of that?” she asked McKenzie. “I think they would think twice about moving that money out,” he replied.

The road widening issue has made strange bedfellows of Directors Lance Hines (“I’m not a big big advocate of smart growth. I call sprawl growth,” he said tonight) and Dean Kumpuris, who said he’s spent 25 years of his life working to revitalize downtown and he doesn’t understand how Metroplan’s alternative ideas can “get people in and out of town” without harming it. Where does the money come from to make the arterials better, and will that actually reduce congestion on I-30 at rush hour? he wanted to know. He said he did not want to “throw away” the progress he’s made downtown “by making the wrong decision.”

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Indeed, money for roads is the central question, as McKenzie had made clear in his earlier analysis of the I-30, or 30 Crossing, plan, and one cities and states are facing nationally.

McKenzie reviewed several of the problems with widening a short stretch of interstate and those have been reported one extensively in the Times and the blog (go here to begin reading, if you choose). Several points McKenzie and Covington made are worth repeating:

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— The interstate highway system in Metroplan’s area — Pulaski, Saline, Grant, Garland, Faulkner and Lonoke — “works as a system in equilibrium,” especially for the central counties of Pulaski, Saline, Faulkner and the northern part of Lonoke. So if you widen the highway in one part but not the rest, you just move traffic problems down the road. McKenzie used a home he owned in Hillcrest as a metaphor: When he replaced his leaking water lines, the flow was so great it blew out his faucets. Cost to put the system back into equilibrium: $4 billion.

— At buildout, the AHTD plan will allow traffic to move 55 miles per hour during rush hour on the widened part of I-30, from its north terminal in North Little Rock at Hwy. 67 to where it meets I-530 on the south. From Benton to downtown Little Rock, the widened highway will shave about a minute off travel.

— The impacts of highway widening are beneficial for a while, but eventually lead to sprawl, inner city job loss, more cars, more pollution, more driving and, eventually, the need for more widening. If instead you “manage” congestion, people and jobs are less likely to move out. (Director Hines called the model “Keynesian,” and said he was “a free market guy” and could not agree.) 

— Unlike the AHTD, which concerns itself with road building alone, Imagine Central Arkansas takes all aspects of life into account in its planning, including sustainability, green development, community building, health and alternative transportation.

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Shuffling through pages of documents he’d brought for talking points, Kumpuris said he could not support a resolution sponsored by Directors Webb and Ken Richardson calling on the AHTD to perform more analysis on I-30 and Imagine Central Arkansas, to be acted on a next week’s meeting, without answers.

Kumpuris noted state Rep. Linda Chesterfield’s point she made at the AHTD public meeting on I-30 at the Clinton Library in November: She said the people she represents in Southwest Little Rock have no choice but to take I-30 to get to work and, Kumpuris said, “hate what’s going on.” He also reminded McKenzie that a representative from Stephens Inc. said they have hundreds of employees from outside Little Rock who must face rush-hour traffic.

McKenzie said the south loop roadway once proposed from I-430 at I-30 to 145th Street at I-530 — the highway department declined to fund it — would have helped solve some of Chesterfield’s constituents’ problems. (Director B.J. Wyrick had earlier asked why the south loop highway had not been built.) As to the Stephens employees, McKenzie said the expanded 7 miles if I-30 wouldn’t help “unless they live in the Fourche Bottoms or the McCain Mall.”

Hines suggested that the Imagine Central Arkansas plan was really McKenzie’s plan, since McKenzie has been head of Metroplan for 27 years, and that it was based on a “vision with which I disagree,” as a free-market man. McKenzie countered that the plan was created with much input from the public, and that Hines could see that for himself by going to the web page, where public outreach was logged.

McKenzie also reassured Kumpuris and a skeptical Director Gene Fortson that congestion does not mean downtown will die. He cited as an example Austin, Texas, where congestion on I-35 is “outrageous,” yet the city, once smaller than Little Rock, has had explosive growth.

Webb’s final comment was that the questions about highways and city growth and how things are funded are important,  but that the real policy issue is “What is the city going to look like 50 years from now?”

McKenzie invited Kumpuris — and any other board member — to come to his office for a longer talk, and Kumpuris said he would; Director Joan Adcock said she wanted to hear whatever the two discussed at a public meeting, which will require McKenzie to return to the board again next week.

Architect Tom Fennell passed out copies of the alternative to 30 Crossing that his firm has voluntarily drawn up, but did not address the board.