UPDATE: The Metroplan board has voted with scant opposition to waive the existing six-lane limit on area freeways so that the highway department may build a 10-lane concrete gulch through the heart of Little Rock. The only “no” was from Jarod Varner, director of Rock Region Metro. Leslie Newell Peacock will be back with more after a while.

UPDATE 2: The board, before its sure-fire vote to waive the six-lane limit incorporated into the Central Arkansas Regional Transportation Study (CARTS) as the Metroplan staff recommended, agreed to hear comments from persons attending the meeting first. Speaking for the waiver was Jeff Hathaway, the chairman of the biggest guns in the room, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. He was one of three members of the advisory council to the board who voted last week in support the waiver; 20 others on Regional Planning Advisory Council voted to recommend against the waiver. Falling on deaf ears were statements from people opposed to the waiver: an RPAC member, a member of the Sierra Club, two representatives of neighborhood groups, an Episcopal priest, a downtown resident, a community activist and two scions of prominent Little Rock families, one the son of a former mayor and the other, also an RPAC member, the son of a developer. They said the lifting of the waiver was premature, given that no actual plan has been decided on, and would give the highway department too much power, and that an improved six-lane alternative should have been considered.


Kathy Wells, speaking for the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, said her group “respects the pressures” on the board to vote to lift the six-lane cap, but asked that the board issue a resolution in favor of requiring the highway department to complete an Environmental Impact Statement. The department is doing a less comprehensive Environmental Assessment, which is sure to be at issue in litigation in the future. Christ Episcopal Church rector Scott Walters noted the improvements to downtown that have occurred over the past years, praised Rock Region head Varner as “brilliant” and asked the board not to “miss the moment” for progressive development that benefits all. Pratt Remmel Jr., whose father was mayor from 1952 to 1955, spoke for a Chester 
Street bridge alternative to relieve traffic and said the “elephant in the room” was that a “wealthy” Little Rock family would have to part with property for the Chester Street bridge to go forward. Brad Walker said his father, J. Wythe Walker Sr., “overlooked a lot of personal harm and disruption” when he used urban renewal funds to build West River Apartments at the bottom of Cantrell Hill, displacing the residents of the area. Walker said the 30 Crossing project to widen I-30 is “perceived as progress,” but the city would be better to stick the development envisioned in Metroplan’s 20-year Imagine Central Arkansas plan, which incorporates CARTS.

Rebecca Engstrom, who lives downtown, got under Mayor Mark Stodola’s skin when she referred to the “empty promise of green space” that Stodola hangs his support on. That green space would be created by removing the 2nd Street exit from I-30 and routing exiting traffic to Fourth Street instead. She likened the green space to a swath of “astroturf” stretching under a “dirty, massive interstate” that will only attract a population of homeless folks.


In his remarks, Stodola called Engstrom’s remarks “wrong-headed” and said the 17-acre stretch of land that will replace the on and off ramps at 2nd Street will be developed as an “unbelievable Central Park.” (Unbelievable, all right. Imagine the expense of turning 18 acres of what is now concrete and dirt into a park. Stodola says he has a $50,000 commitment from a private family. That ought to pay for keeping the weeds under control for a couple of years at least. No amount of mowing, however, or even beautification is going to create unbroken “sight lines” from Cumberland Street on the west to the Clinton Presidential Center, since there will be numerous concrete pillars supporting the freeway in the way.)

Stodola said it was unrealistic to think safety and traffic problems on I-30, which the highway department and Metroplan say is unique in its number of merges with other highways (I-40, I-630, I-530 and I-440), could be solved without additional lanes, and he praised the highway department for “surprisingly” agreeing to come up with the “split lane” plan and moving the exits. He said he would have liked the highway department to agree to a new river bridge at Chester Street, but that he’d had as much luck with that idea as he had with leaving the old Broadway Bridge as a pedestrian route beside the new Broadway Bridge. He also said he’d “love to see a boulevard,” which area architects have suggested replace I-30, “but I honestly don’t think that’s realistic. … We have to be practical and use common sense.” He added that he was sorry that RPAC didn’t support the Metroplan staff recommendation to OK the waiver. “I’m not sure I understand that.”


Stodola also said there was still time to negotiate changes. Metroplan Director Jim McKenzie explained the timeline: Now that the waiver has been agreed to, the staff must amend Imagine Central Arkansas. Before that happens, however, Metroplan must analyze the impact of 30 Crossing on the Central Arkansas freeway system, and it can’t do that until it sees the highway department’s NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) modeling on the project, which should be available in November. An amendment based on the final impact analysis could be ready by January 207, but could be later, depending on how the board wants to proceed. A minimum of 30 days comment on the amendment is required. McKenzie said the board should consider whether to have a formal public hearing at that stage, and in a handout McKenzie said this amendment “should be the big vote that will draw the most public interest.”

Metroplan will also have to amend its short-range Transportation Improvement Plan, which it can do until it sees the draft Environmental Assessment or the Federal Highway Administration identifies the preferred alternative, now not expected until late March 2017.

Unlike the highway department, Metroplan has to include financial constraints — how the work will be paid for — in its transportation planning.

Factor in inevitable litigation and 30 Crossing is a long way off from reality.


From earlier:

The board of Metroplan, the regional planning agency, votes this morning on a waiver of the six-lane limit on freeways and is expected to remove that hurdle to the highway department’s desire to make Interstate 30 a 10-lane Concrete Gulch through the heart of Little Rock. It will further damage an urban core it has already blighted and do precious little over the long haul about traffic congestion.

A grassroots group, Improve 30 Crossing, has issued a final, thoughtful statement opposing the waiver and calling for more study of alternatives. It was signed by Tom Fennell, Ellen Fennell, Pratt Remmel Jr., Pat Riley Jr., Barry Haas, Kathy Webb and Rebecca Engstrom.

They note better ideas. They note the parroting of talking points, heavily provided by contractors, filed in support of the plan.  They note the delay of an environmental assessment — under pressure from federal officials — for its obvious shortcoming in failing to consider historic preservation issues. They note the echoes of blind support from so-called city leaders, just as city leaders once backed a terrible plan to turn Rebsamen Park Road into a high-speed arterial, which would have killed the future Big Dam Bridge and the recreational corridor that has resulted. Legal action and a city referendum stopped that.

That $630 million in precious taxpayer funds must be spent more wisely. Don’t the public’s voices count for anything when deciding critical “public policy issues” like this one?

Well, good for them. Following is the full essay:

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) has requested a waiver from Metroplan’s 6-through-lane maximum on the I-30 project they call 30 Crossing. Improve 30 Crossing, a group of engaged citizens who believe AHTD’s plans will result in real harm to ongoing and thriving development in downtown Little Rock, opposes the waiver as being extremely premature given the current state of the proposed project.

Sometimes it takes the collective vision and voices of ordinary citizens to show elected “leaders” they’re headed in the wrong direction.

Last December, Paul Greenberg wrote a column about the plans to widen I-30 to ten lanes and called the idea “madness multiplied”. In the column’s final paragraph he writes: “Plans are just fine….but beware: Great plans can prove great failures, even if some of our planners are oblivious to the great failures they are courting.”

It was revealed last week that the I-30 Environmental Assessment (EA) will now take until the end of March 2017. The reason for the extended time line? AHTD had essentially ignored Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act which requires the inclusion of historic preservation issues. The Federal Highway Administration had to set our state highway department straight on their responsibilities under Section 106.

This extended time line on the EA gives AHTD additional time to present a responsible plan that the community can get behind and support. But it may not be the $630 million plan dreamed of by big highway contractors.

So far AHTD has offered thousands of individuals trying to stay informed on this issue few options, none of them good. There was a “No build” option. And then there were “Build” options with 14-15 lanes dividing downtown Little Rock, a massive overbuilding based on both traffic count and the populations of Little Rock and North Little Rock.

The public deserves a rational, reasonable option. At a minimum it should include replacement of the I-30 bridge as already required by the federal government, shifting some downtown through traffic east to I-440 and west  to I-430 through the use of improved signage, and major improvements to I-30 access points.

It’s unfortunate that for the most part the leadership of Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County have accepted AHTD’s lack of a reasonable alternative as described above. When will they stand up and fight for what’s best for their citizens?

Independent traffic studies have shown that AHTD’s proposals may make congestion worse, not better, due to “induced demand” where more motorists use the additional lanes and travel speeds are slower than at present. We need only look at other metropolitan areas that have suffered just that fate upon completion of interstate widenings. Must we make the same mistake at a cost of hundreds of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars?

An intriguing option offered many months ago was to turn I-30 into a boulevard in downtown Little Rock. Get rid of that racing through downtown Little Rock at breakneck speed option. Stitch the areas east and west of the existing I-30 back together after roughly 60 years of having a barrier separating the two. Think of the development possibilities and quality of life improvements that would offer to both residents and visitors alike. Call it “Little Rock Boulevard”, and watch the area come alive.

Who is surprised that contractors submitted at least 30 of the 108 comments “For the 6-through-lane waiver” to Metroplan? We’re not. And an incredible 73 or so of the 108 “For” comments, almost 68%, parroted the identical, contractor contrived paragraph either word for word, or changing the order of the sentences to make the comments seem original. They were not original, and didn’t hide an effort to stuff the ballot box.

Given the scope of the proposed I-30 project, it’s likely that a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will ultimately be required rather than the less comprehensive EA. There is local legal precedent for such action in a 1991 federal lawsuit involving Rebsamen Park Road along the Arkansas River in Little Rock. That project, like the current I-30 project, was conceived in the hope it would save commuters a few minutes each day. But that project, like the current I-30 project, ignored the rights and needs of Little Rock residents.

It took both a successful federal lawsuit as well as a vote by Little Rock voters in November 1992 to force misguided Little Rock leaders to abandon their Rebsamen Park Road plans. That area along the Arkansas River in Little Rock, along with the Big Dam Bridge which could not have been built had a commuter road been built in that same area, is now one of the most highly utilized recreational spots in central Arkansas.

Just as the Little Rock Mayor and Board did in 1991-1992 with their mistaken vision on Rebsamen Park Road, Little Rock’s, North Little Rock’s and Pulaski County’s current leadership has acquiesced to the highway department’s threat- do it our way, or you won’t even get an I-30 bridge replacement.

That $630 million in precious taxpayer funds must be spent more wisely. Don’t the public’s voices count for anything when deciding critical “public policy issues” like this one?

Improve 30 Crossing believes we can do better, and our communities deserve better, than a rushed expansion of I-30. Better options are out there if our elected officials and Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department are willing to listen. Adding ever more lanes is not the solution.