After more than an hour of public comment and board debate, City Director Gene Fortson moved that a resolution by Directors Kathy Webb and Ken Richardson asking the state Highway and Transportation Department to consider alternatives to widening Interstate 30 be deferred to April and the board quickly adopted the motion, with only Webb, Richardson and Director B.J. Wyrick voting against deferral.

It was one of those actions that felt predetermined, decided upon by resolution opponents before the board even met. By deferring action on the resolution, members of the public who spoke for it weren’t told to go to hell right away. 

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Fortson and other foes of the resolution — Directors Lance Hines and Dean Kumpuris — maintained that the highway department’s planning is still in flux and the resolution would require the highway department to go back to the beginning. People who spoke during the public comment period, however, said that the only unsettled question is whether to build out to 8 lanes or 10 (and the highway department had to be pushed to reconsider the 8-lane plan).

The question is, where will the Metroplan board be in its deliberations on whether to amend their 20-year and transportation plans to allow the AHTD to widen I-30 by April? If it’s already voted to amend the plan, the resolution will be moot. Too, the AHTD hopes to have its schematics complete by mid-year, according to the Connecting Arkansas Program website. Seems like once those are in place, there will be no impetus to consider leaving the interstate at six lanes or doing away with it altogether, as architect Tom Fennell has proposed.

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City Manager Bruce Moore told the board that the city is in the process of hiring an urban planner and should have a recommendation for the board by next week. Will that person or firm be able to work with the highway department? Maybe on making the tunnels the widening will create more palatable. In an interesting aside, Wyrick read from a letter to the board from the AHTD that said the underpasses will be the city’s responsibility. What happened to all those great wide sidewalks and climbing walls?

Hines, who acknowledged tonight that he’s in the transportation business and is biased, again raised the specter that if we don’t let the highway department do what it wants, they’ll take their $600 million and spend it on other highway needs elsewhere in Arkansas. He said Metroplan Director Jim McKenzie was “naive” in the opinion he expressed at the City Board meeting last Tuesday that the highway department would do no such thing. “If you don’t think there are other commissioners on [the Arkansas State Highway Commission] with constituents lined up to take this money … ” Hines said the highway department plans are based on facts; Metroplan’s long-range planning Imagine Central Arkansas (which keeps I-30 at six lanes) is based on something else.

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Kumpuris, who said he was going to meet with McKenzie tomorrow, remained opposed to the resolution but at the same time said he believed “we have got to go out and spend some time to find the answers,” to which Richardson responded that that is exactly what the resolution would achieve. Kumpuris also said, “$660 million to build out roads that won’t help congestion — I don’t think that’s the right answer.” But, he added, he wasn’t sure that architect Ed Sargent, who spoke for the resolution during the public comment period, was correct in saying only a few minutes would be saved. It seemed like Kumpuris was having a debate with himself, which, as someone who has worked to bring back downtown Little Rock but is also a fan of the highway-backing Chamber of Commerce makes sense.

Other speakers in support of the resolution during the public comment period included architect Charlie Penix, who leads the Cromwell architecture firm; Fennell; MoveArkansas blogger Tim McKuin; League of Women Voters representative Ruth Bell; Downtown Neighborhood Association President Starre Haas; and residents, including lawyer Carol Worley, Central High neighborhood developer Paul Dodds and Texas transplant John Hedrick.

Penix, who leads the Cromwell firm, which has purchased property east of I-30, said “the interstate was a mistake in the first place,” and he hoped Little Rock leaders would take the opportunity to reconnect the divided city rather than sever east and west further. “There’s not an urban planner [in the nation] that wouldn’t tell you that this is a terrible thing.” Worley said the board’s resolution would have more impact than the single voices that have asked the highway department to reconsider their plans. “We need you as a board to tell them they need to do that. That would be a heck of a lot stronger than me, Carol Worley, squawking like a chicken,” she said.

Director Erma Hendrix asked why McKenzie did not reappear before the board tonight; Kumpuris assured her McKenzie would come back to the board after he had met with him. CORRECTION: Because I was watching on television, I mistook the voice I heard inquiring about McKenzie as Hendrix’s. I am informed this morning that Hendrix was not at the meeting last night. 

In other business, the board voted to approve a change in the master street plan that would keep Kanis Road from Walnut Grove Road to Chenal Downs Boulevard at two 10-and-a-half-foot lanes with no shoulder or sidewalk. City planners had recommended against the change — previously the standard was two 11-foot lanes with two 4-foot shoulders. Residents of the area sought to protect the tree canopy on that stretch of road, in what is known as Fletcher Hollow. The Planning Commission had voted in favor of the change as well.

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