The board of directors of Metroplan voted today to seek public comment on an amendment to its Imagine Arkansas long-range transportation plan that would allow the highway department’s 30 Crossing project, which would widen 7 miles of I-30 through downtown North Little Rock and North Little Rock and replace the Arkansas River bridge, to go forward. But the Central Arkansas planning agency threw a curveball at its own advisory council, by the council’s wording on what it was recommending to the Metroplan board.
Last Wednesday, Metroplan’s Regional Planning Advisory Council approved an amendment to allow “operational improvements and major widening” of I-30. After the RPAC meeting, however, Metroplan Director Tab Townsell and Deputy Director Casey Covington decided, at the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department’s request, to change “major widening” to “capacity improvements.” Townsell said the change was made in consultation with “partners” from Little Rock, North Little Rock and and Pulaski County, though not with any member of RPAC. Metroplan then sent the reworded amendment allowing “capacity improvements” in its packets to the board of directors for today’s meeting.
CORRECTION: From Townsell via email: They [AHTD] did not make that request by themselves. It’s that simple. The way you wrote it is not accurate when it states that. The language came in consultation with the partners.
RPAC was not notified until over the weekend that the Metroplan board had been sent the AHTD-altered language, rather than its approved “major widening” language.
So, what’s the difference? Well, “widening” clearly describes what the AHTD wants to do on Interstate 30, a controversial, $632 million proposal that would add to the concrete barrier the interstate already creates between East Little Rock and downtown. “Capacity improvements,” on the other hand, is mushier, and acquiesces to the idea that whatever the AHTD is going to do will be an improvement. RPAC, with the exception only a few members, has made it clear it does not wish to support the 30 Crossing plan without seeing its environmental assessment, due out later this year or early next year.
Strangely, the AHTD originally proposed the “major widening” language be used in the first place. Did their lawyers decide that those words were too specific?
Richard Mays, a lawyer who has been following the 30 Crossing debate, called it “audacious” that Metroplan and the AHTD “would presume to change the official resolution of a public body.”
Townsell said this afternoon that the AHTD’s reasoning for the change was that “capacity improvement” is “was more expansive language,” and said Metroplan was not trying to be “euphemistic.” He said he told the board today that it should not misunderstand “capacity improvements” to think it’s not “major widening,” though under some alternatives, 30 Crossing would not widen the entire stretch of I-30.
Townsell also said the Metroplan staff “messed up” by not including RPAC’s recommended language in the board packets. He also said that when the staff puts the amendment out for public comment, “we are going to send out a sheet with it that’s giving a layperson’s explanation, and that this can include major widening for most of the sector.” That will go out in the next few days, Townsell said.