The Arkansas Department of Transportation issued a news release yesterday announcing the Highway Commission had selected the Kiewit-Massman Constructors combine to build the 30 Crossing project through downtown Little Rock.  The news release obscured major developments — a dramatic shortage of money likely means a dramatic change in scope of the project.

The combine, the release said, will commence work “upon the successful conclusion of an optimization and refinement period.” And what does that mean?

Said the release:

The optimization and refinement period is a six-month period in which ARDOT and Kiewit-Massman Constructors will work together to define the 30 Crossing project scope that can be completed within the available funding

Uh oh.

Leslie Newell Peacock learned a few more details yesterday and Noel Oman’s report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette also provides more. Money is short. Way short.

A project that was projected to cost $325 million in 2013 is estimated to cost more than $1 billion now. (And this doesn’t count the nightmarishly expensive traffic problems that will be created on feeder roads, with no money in hand to fix.) Also: Though a tax-financed state bond issue will provide $631 million, only $535 million is available for actual construction after spending on right of way, planning and such.

And there’s still more bad news, depending on your point of view. Of course the project as currently envisioned will have to be changed significantly since it would cost double the money on hand. There was much talk of efficiencies and the beauties of the “design-build” model at the Highway Commission meeting, but be sure of this: Half the money means half the project.

Less work means less, almost certainly, of any effort, however slight, to ameliorate the city-crushing impact of widening an already divisive concrete gulch through the heart of Little Rock.

Indeed, Oman’s article notes that the original plan for work on a 6.7-mile corridor likely will be shrunk substantially. Instead of running between the north terminal and south terminal interchanges, it appears we are now talking mostly about a new Arkansas River bridge and a half-mile or so of approaches on either side. Left out will be big amounts of work between Interstate 630 (the Mills Freeway) and Interstate 530 (the East Belt) on the south side of the river and between Interstate 40 and Seventh Street on the north side of the river.

What this means about the “collector lanes” that were the euphemistic substitute for freeway widening along the stretch remains to be seen. What this means about landscaping, roadway connectors and aesthetic touches to blunt the damage of the big dig remains to be seen. Little Rock’s business community, a cheerleader for this project, can forget, if it dreamed otherwise, of state help to ease the massive chaos the work will create on the city’s traffic grid or for any assistance in creating the ballyhooed “park” where the 2nd Street exit currently exists. The city, already madly cutting the budget, certainly is no source for added cash.

The good news is that one lawsuit is pending over the proposal to use state bond money specifically dedicated to four-lane highways to build a 10-lane freeway. Yet to come is a federal lawsuit to challenge the project on environmental grounds.

In the meanwhile, more studies likely will emerge nationally of the futility of widening roads to adapt to traffic demands; more cities will find other ways to handle traffic (ripping out freeway is one popular new solution); some city leaders will reconsider the wisdom of sacrificing quality of Little Rock life to aid suburban development; changes in vehicle technology might alter vehicle traffic, and so on. Could this dent the “Keep Busy” attitude of highway engineers and contractors?  (Where’s George Fisher when we need his cartoon illustrations of the mindset.)

The legislature, with the highway construction lobby begging for more money, might also give some thoughts to what money needs would be if we didn’t build ill-considered projects that triple in cost in five years time and cause more damage than benefit.

UPDATE: Leslie Peacock inquired what the news means on changes in design and perhaps a need for further public and environmental review. She received this prelimindary response from Ben Browning, the project engineer. There’ll be more to come:

We will work closely with FHWA to determine if changes to the project will result in the need to perform a reassessment of the Environmental Document. We have always known and tried to communicate that the project being cleared environmentally was probably greater than the scope that could be constructed with the available funding. The hope has been to use Design-Build to maximize the scope that can be constructed within the available public funds.

He said the result most likely would be a “phased portion” of the design shown in the environmental document.

 

We would start with the river bridge and look outward from there. The [10-lane collector/distribution] C/D system would still provide most of the benefits and resolve many of the current issues on the corridor even if it has to tie back into the old system at a certain distance beyond the bridge.

UPDATE II: Richard Mays, a lawyer who’s been working with people who object to 30 Crossing, said it was his opinion that a “substantial change” in design and scope would require a new environmental assessment.