Twenty members of the public urged Metroplan’s board of directors tonight not to alter the agency’s long-range transportation plan to allow for the state highway department’s widening of Interstate 30 in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. Four speakers spoke in favor.
No minds were changed at the sparsely attended (55 or so showed up) public hearing, on the campus of Pulaski Technical College, but folks got to speak their piece. The counsel of the four — all businessmen — will prevail, if things progress as usual.
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The amendment to the long-range plan, also known as Imagine Central Arkansas, would allow for “capacity improvements” along I-30. Metroplan Director Tab Townsell and Deputy Director Casey Covington both stressed that “capacity improvements” should be understood to include “major widening,” the language preferred by Metroplan’s advisory council. The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department asked for the “capacity improvement” wording, and the Metroplan board went along with the wording change. The board will vote on the amendment after the public comment period ends May 30.
Opponents made the same arguments that the highway department and Metroplan have heard before, with a few new twists: Most significantly, several suggested that Metroplan pay attention to its staff and investigate its own “hybrid” plan, to relieve congestion on I-30 by adding another northeast-bound lane where 30 and 40 intersect. Their modeling shows that that move alone would provide for smooth sailing for northbound after-work traffic.
Also, Brad Walker, a lawyer and a member of Metroplan’s Regional Planning Advisory Council, asked for the agency’s support in his bid to get a permit to shut I-30 down for a day — a “corridor free Sunday” — during which people could experience downtown without the traffic and noise of a busy highway. He said it would be a way to “know what it is to ‘do no harm’,” repeating a Metroplan goal Townsell relayed to a recent Rotary Club meeting. Townsell called Walker’s idea “the most novel suggestion I’ve heard tonight.”
The $630 million price tag for the 30 Crossing project — the highway department wants to rebuild the bridge and widen I-30 by means of four “collector/distributor” lanes for local traffic — and the costly impacts that the inevitable higher vehicle numbers will have on the feeders into I-30 topped the list of concerns expressed tonight by opponents of the change to the long-range plan.
Patrick Stair, the Sierra Club representative on RPAC, took exception to the amendment’s use of the language “capacity improvement” to describe the widening project. Why should it be termed an improvement? he asked. The induced demand that a wider highway will bring will create the need for major widening on connecting roads. “So, in addition to [spending] $630 million, we’ll be setting ourselves up for three or four additional major projects,” Stair said, a “frightening financial burden.”
Another proposed amendment to the long-range plan would add an apostrophe indicating “Illustrative Projects Linked to 30 Crossing,” noting “noticeable” impacts on three corridors: I-30’s south terminal at the I-530/I-440 to 65th Street, 65th Street to I-430 after the 65th Street widening, and I-30 to University Avenue. The AHTD has not made any financial commitments to those corridors.
Speaking for the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, President Kathy Wells urged the board to “slow down and get all the details before you decide what I-30 proposal to support. … The record shows that there’s not enough money for this I-30 expansion and existing plans for arterials and other upgrades, so you must tell citizens what you will give away to gain this state expansion of I-30.”
Architect Tom Fennell’s idea to replace I-30 in Little Rock with a boulevard and move traffic to another bridge over the Arkansas was touted, including by Fennell himself, for its potential boost to business downtown. Fennell and others also criticized the alternatives — the six lanes plus four C/D lanes and an 8-lane alternative that the Federal Highway Administration insisted it draw up — as basically identical. Former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental analyst Dale Pekar, likened the alternatives, both of which include two routes into downtown Little Rock, to chocolate sundaes, differing only in their toppings.
Pekar also made the point that congestion and development go hand in hand, and that congestion is a normal result of business.
Cary Tyson of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute cited all the work that citizens had put into the forging of the Imagine Central Arkansas plan. “Why be involved,” he asked, only to be “ignored?”
Haskell Dickinson, who owns the company that mines Granite Mountain — “we build highways,” he said — was one of the four businessmen, arguing that Little Rock would be “just another struggling Delta town” without an interstate system allowing access to such sites as UAMS and the Little Rock airport. He wants I-30 made bigger to handle the movement of “goods and services.” At the same time, Dickinson also criticized Metroplan for its long ago vote that halted the construction of a north loop that would have connected I-630, I-440 and I-430, which, in light of today’s proposal that we need to spend $630 million to build 7 miles of I-30 to alleviate traffic, wasn’t a bad point to make.
Others speaking in favor of 30 Crossing were realtor Jeff Hathaway, tech business owner and Little Rock Technology Park board member John Burgess, and LR Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jay Chesshir.
Mayor Mark Stodola, chastised by the third speaker for his late arrival to the public hearing (neither North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith nor County Judge Barry Hyde showed up at all), said after the meeting that he had taken “copious notes” on what the speakers had to say. He added that Fennell’s boulevard plan will never fly, because the AHTD will never agree to build another bridge across the Arkansas River, though that is what Stodola would have liked to see.