The Arkansas highway department’s representative on the Metroplan board of directors told the board today that the department is requesting an exception to the planning agency’s cap on six lanes for its 30 Crossing project to widen Interstate 30 from six to 10 (and more) lanes.
Highway department head Scott Bennett, in a June 17 letter to Metroplan, had asked the agency to abolish its six-lane cap on general purpose lanes. Jesse Jones told the board the agency is now requesting an exception instead, and asked for quick action so that 30 Crossing can go forward as planned.
Metroplan Director Jim McKenzie, noting that Metroplan has been asking the highway department to send its letter requesting the change since last fall, said his agency’s Regional Planning Advisory Council can consider the highway department request at its July meeting and perhaps have a recommendation ready for the board’s meeting later that month.
But it’s not as simple as that. If the highway department wants Metroplan to make an exception, according to the Central Arkansas Regional Transportation Study Area’s roadway design standards,it first “is expected to do a thorough analysis of alternative methods of meeting travel demand in the corridor with improved arterials and public transit. A thorough analysis of the impact of the induced traffic demand on local roadways as a result of the widening beyond six through lanes would also be required. The Metroplan Board may also consider conducting an independent analysis of widening proposals over six through lanes for its use and benefit.”
That means the highway department has to make the case that improvements to the I-30 corridor can’t be made with only six lanes — a case that has not been made in the opinion of many — and must fess up on the real financial impact of widening of I-30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock on the planning area’s freeway system as a whole. Metroplan has to have that information to amend, for the federal government, its 20-year plan that includes what dollars will be required to achieve the plan.
What, for example, will the cost be to widen I-30 to 65th street from the I-530 intersection, the terminus of 30 Crossing? The widening is included in the highway department’s models of impact on traffic — but no such project is yet in the works, nor has money been set aside.
The induced traffic that the widening of I-30 to 10 and in some places 14 lanes will produce (and which the highway department agrees will occur) will create jams down the road from 30 Crossing’s limits; Metroplan has estimated the cost of fixing 30 Crossing-caused chokepoints at $4 billion.
The $630 million cost of the seven-mile project, along with the fact that Gov. Hutchinson has persuaded the state to divert general revenues to pay for highways, rather raise the gas tax, was noted over and over again by persons who rose to speak at the meeting today. Should we then be focusing only on freeways for our future transportation needs? Using general revenues means that future highway construction and upkeep will come at the cost of other public services and, architect Tom Fennell said, saddle future generations with debt. “Are you going to look back and say this was a good decision?” Fennell asked the board.
Should the Metroplan board decide that it could make an exception to its six-lane limit, that would not be an endorsement of the $630 million 30 Crossing project, McKenzie noted after the meeting. The board cannot approve 30 Crossing until there is a definite plan to approve, which won’t be until the highway department’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) draft plan is ready, sometime in the fall. The draft will give Metroplan access to the highway department’s modeling so that it can make its own assessment of impact on the regional transportation system. What follows will be a four-month (estimated) process of review and public outreach on any change to the 20-year plan (known as Imagine Central Arkansas).
Others addressing the board today included Carol Young of the League of Women Voters, who said she would like to see accident data for the Big Rock Interchange’s construction, thinking the accidents that will occur during construction of 30 Crossing could negate positive effects down the road; Trey Willis, a resident of downtown who said that “when you come from somewhere where things are done … [he paused here] differently” you’ve got to wonder at why so much money will be spent to achieve so little; and engineer Dale Pekar, who questions the highway department’s data and asked why we shouldn’t have rush hour slowdowns. Barry Haas, an advocate for conservation, and Kathy Wells of the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, both called for a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement to be made, rather than the Environmental Assessment that the road agency is conducting. Sharon Welch-Blair, who owns the Empress of Little Rock bed and breakfast, said the widening project would deter other business people like her from coming downtown.