30 CROSSING: As originally conceived.

30 CROSSING: As originally conceived. There have been changes, not enough to prevent a major lawsuit challenge today.

The expected lawsuit was filed today to stop the 30 Crossing project, a billion-dollar plan to widen 7.3 miles of the Interstate 30 corridor through Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Plaintiffs include individuals, four neighborhood associations and the coalition of Downtown Little Rock Neighborhoods. Also among the plaintiffs is Arkansas Community Organizations, a successor to ACORN, which slowed and improved but couldn’t stop the Interstate 630 project that created enormous division by race and class in Little Rock. The plaintiffs’ lawyers are Richard H. Mays and Heather Zachary of the Little Rock law firm of Williams and Anderson. Mays has been monitoring the project throughout the hearing process and has also filed a separate legal action over the Interstate 630 widening project. (I wrote incorrectly originally that he was the lawyer challenging  use of highway bond money approved for four-lane highways on projects wider than four lanes.  Another lawyer filed that case.) The 30 Crossing project will create a 10-lane freeway through Little Rock, with some segments even wider for entrance and exit.

I’m seeking a comment from Arkansas highway officials. UPDATE: A spokesman said the had not been served with lawsuit and have no comment

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The 94-page lawsuit notes the cost overrun from $650 million in an original estimate to $1 billion.

The development of an alternative plan for reconstruction and widening of the I-30 Corridor with availability of only approximately one-half to two-thirds of the funds that are necessary to develop the proposed Project as originally designed would result in a significant change in the scope, design and construction of the Project, with consequential significant adverse consequences, effects and impacts not foreseen or analyzed…

The rising cost in the project, which includes an Arkansas River bridge replacement, has prompted the DOT to say the project will have to be scaled down to a form different from that on which public hearings were held as an environmental assessment was compiled.

The lawsuit, in seeking an injunction to stop the project, challenges the environmental finding of no significant impact. The lawsuit says the evaluation failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act in evaluating impact of the project or alternatives. In such cases, a court may order a more intensive environmental impact statement.

The lawsuit said plaintiffs represent “owners and residents of homes, apartments and condominiums in geographic areas bordering the 30 Corridor Project area or in adjacent areas who will be exceptionally and severely affected by impacts on the human environment that will occur as a result of the 30 Corridor Project that have not been considered…” These include traffic, noise, air quality, impact on historic places and damage to neighborhoods “social, aesthetic and economic” qualities. The project also will affect the ability to use connecting highways, a reference to the “induced demand” this project will put on those roads. No provisions are made in the 30 Crossing plan for that, though the state has acknowledged the likelihood of this and that it will cost over time to address.

In addition to challenging whether planners met administrative requirements, federal laws aimed at preserving parks and natural beauty and the Clean Water Act (wetlands will be destroyed), the suit enumerates 13 areas in which the environmental assessment fell short and thus was arbitrary.

The lawsuit faults the planners in 13 “counts” of shortcomings for:

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  • Basing the environmental assessment on a different project (one bigger than what available money will finance.)
  • Failing to make a final environmental assessment state available for public comment.
  • In responding to public comments included new information on which the public was NOT able to comment, for example, information on impact on jobs and income.
  • Misleading the public in the comment period to believe only the alternative proposed by the highway department was open for comment when they could have talked about alternatives.
  • Not performing a full environmental impact statement as NEPA required given the various negative impacts.

ArDOT acknowledges in the EA that it does not have sufficient funds with which to construct the 30 Corridor Project as proposed by the EA. It did not have those funds available and committed as of the issuance of the EA. That, alone, renders the possible effects of the Project on the human environment to be highly uncertain and risky. In addition, ArDOT acknowledges that this is the largest and most ambitious project that it has ever undertaken; the first highway project in the state to utilize the “design-build to a budget” method; and the first project to use the Planning and Environmental Linkage (PEL) study process to determine possible alternatives that can be carried forward into the NEPA study for the Project. Also, the EA acknowledges that there are many indirect and cumulative impacts of the Project that are not addressed (e.g., traffic “bottlenecks” caused by the Project in areas outside the 30 Corridor that will require further construction). With so many “firsts,” and the other contingencies and uncertainties that ArDOT has raised in how and when the Project is to be constructed and the adverse impacts it will cause, it seems foolhardy to risk the waste of over $1 Billion on unresolved problems that are very foreseeable and that could be partially or completely addressed through development of an Environmental Impact Statement.

  • Basing the stated purposes and needs of the projection faulty assumptions. For example, planners say the project is meant to ease congestion and speed travel to and from downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock when commuter traffic is a major factor and will only continue to grow. It is, the suit, said a “self-fulfilling prophesy” of continued congestion, no matter how many lanes are added. Here, alternative routes across the river should have been considered, the suit says.
  • Using purported environmental documents that were not subject to NEPA scrutiny. One example is the DOT’s rejection of alternative traffic routes over new river crossings without adequate consideration.
  • Failing to analyze alternatives such as a “boulevard” plan for I-30, a Pike Avenue improvement alternative, a new Chester Street crossing, mass transit and high-occupancy vehicle lanes and how changes in automobiles (electric cars, autonomous vehicles) might change freeway needs.

While ArDOT cautions against constructing a highway based on emerging technologies, it is equally unwise (if not more so) to spend a billion dollars on a highway that may be obsolete by the time it is finished, and will have to be retrofitted for AVs and other vehicles of the not-too-distant future.

  • Failure to consider direct and indirect impacts. These include noise, air and light impact on neighbors and the new demand created on other streets and highways. The suit said planners are attempting to “segment” the interstate system in Pulaski County to avoid addressing all of the congestion issues comprehensively. In short, this supposed project to ease congestion will just shift it elsewhere, the suit says. The project will change access to the freeway and potentially harm growing areas, such as parks on both sides of the river, the Clinton Library, the River Market and Heifer International. The project makes no allowance for the necessity of new traffic controls on city streets. And planners claim the project will increase “community cohesion” without offering any evidence, the suit said.

There is a long history of the construction of I-30 and I-630 causing disproportionately high and adverse environmental effects on the citizens who reside on the east side of the 30 Corridor Project and west of the Project and south of I-630. The EA acknowledges that the people who reside in those areas consist of a high proportion of minorities, and the evidence is strong from the past development of I-30 and I-630 that they have suffered economically and socially by being separated from the remainder of the City.

  • The justification for an I-30 bridge replacement is lacking.

Each alternative in the EA assumes that the existing I-30 Bridge will be demolished and replaced. Aside from its age and deteriorating condition, the major objection to the existing bridge is that it contains a pier or support that is located in the middle of the shipping channel in the Arkansas River, and presents a hazard for barges and other vessels navigating the Arkansas River.

However, there is nothing in the EA or any of its Appendices that discusses reasonable alternatives to the bridge design as proposed in Alternatives 1 and 2, or indirect and cumulative impacts of the demolition and reconstruction of the bridge. It is apparently assumed in the EA that such action is necessary, desired and beneficial.

There are reasonable alternatives to the demolition and replacement of the I-30 bridge as proposed by the design contained in Alternatives 1 and 2 that should be analyzed. In addition, the demolition and replacement of the bridge will have its own indirect and cumulative impacts on the use of the Arkansas River by barge traffic, on the possible development of additional barge terminals on the River, and on noise, air quality, employment and safety of persons in central Arkansas. Those potential impacts have been ignored in the EA.

  • The assessment failed to assess the cumulative impact.
  • The planners failed to respond to specific objections in the planning process.
  • The plan violates the law by using parks in Little Rock and North Little Rock without considering alternatives.

The suit wants the process enjoined until the defendants can develop a plan that complies with environmental and other laws.

Here’s a draft of the lawsuit, which has been assigned to Judge James Moody.