30 CROSSING: Will it look like this? Or something else. Lawyer wants to know.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation has put up a short notice on its Connecting Arkansas website that the Federal Highway Administration has issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for its 30 Crossing project.

30 Crossing Project, a.k.a. the Big Damn Ditch, will widen Interstate 30 from six to 10 lanes and more in places from I-40 on the north to the I-440/I-540 intersection on the south, a stretch of seven miles that ARDOT estimated would cost $631 million. But bids that came in after ARDOT submitted its Environmental Assessment on the project to the FHWA put the real cost of the contract at nearly $1 billion. That means ARDOT can’t afford to build the 30 Crossing project as designed.

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Ben Browning, project engineer, said today that the highway department will probably sign a contract with Kiewit-Massman Constructors this week, and will then enter a six-month “optimization refinement” stage. That period allows the highway department to work with the contractor on how much of 30 Crossing can be built for the $535 million available. (Planning, right-of-way acquisition and other preliminary work has required ARDOT to hold back $100 million of its funding). For example, ARDOT, rather than the contractor, could assume the risk of unexpected costs. The abbreviated project would be considered phase one of the full 30 Crossing project.

Browning said the department and the contractors believe they can replace the I-30 bridge in the 10-lane configuration (six through lanes and four connector-distributer lanes for traffic entering and exiting I-30 at Broadway in North Little Rock and Fourth Street in Little Rock) in phase one. He said ARDOT also wants to improve the intersection of I-40 and Hwy. 65 to fix the traffic pattern that now requires drivers to weave across lanes of traffic. (It would not be the extensive flyovers as originally conceived, though that would come in later phases.)

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ARDOT’s website says “no additional NEPA documentation is required for this project. FHWA in cooperation with ARDOT identifies Alternative 2B [the 6 plus 4 CD lanes in a “split diamond” configuration] as the Selected Alternative for the project. If, during design or construction, changes in laws or regulations occur that affect the project, or there are major design changes that result in greater impacts than those evaluated in this document, a reevaluation of this EA will be performed [our emphasis].

Richard Mays, a lawyer who is challenging ARDOT’s construction on the Wilbur Mills highway (I-630) for its lack of an EA, said those who believe the highway department should have done a full environmental impact study on 30 Crossing are “generally dismayed” by the FONSI. He said he didn’t know how the FONSI could hold, because ARDOT doesn’t “have half the money to do the project they designed. They don’t even know what the project will be yet. They haven’t settled on that.”

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Browning, however, said that as long as ARDOT doesn’t vary in a significant way from its plan, it will not need to amend its EA for the FHWA.