30 CROSSING: Build it all! With a tax increase! So the state now says.

Richard Mays tipped me last week that the Arkansas Department of Transportation hopes Arkansas taxpayers will give it an additional $350 million in sales tax money to provide the full $1 billion needed to widen Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock as originally planned.

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Mays is the lawyer who’s filed a taxpayer lawsuit challenging the “30 Crossing” concrete ditch on environmental grounds. The Highway Department scaled the 10-lane project back because of rising costs. Some $650 billion was provided from the last big highway bond issue. But with a cost rise to almost $1 billion, trims in the project had to be made. These changes would only exacerbate the strain on connecting roads from the ill-conceived project that will further harm downtown and induce ruinously and expensive new traffic demands on city streets and connecting highways.

Mays had already argued that the design changes from a reduced budget made meaningless the original, inadequate environmental assessment. Key change: improvements between I-630 and the South Terminal were eliminated.

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The Highway Department now sees the vote on a permanent half-cent sales tax for highways in November as the pathway to full funding for the grand I-30 project, which, in its original form, would widen the freeway between the I-40 junction in North Little Rock and the South Terminal Interchange to shave a few seconds off commute times for suburban commuters at rush hour. It would also replace the Arkansas River bridge, which is inconveniently designed for river barge traffic,

Mays told me last week that the Highway Department revealed its new plan in a request to Metroplan, the regional planning agency, to amend its regional traffic plan to reflect the full project. Metroplan will approve. It is controlled by suburban counties, plus Pulaski County “leaders” who are beholden to highway contractors and big business interests. It is an article of their faith that pouring concrete equals prosperity.  For the contractors, sure. The evidence is that it also sends hordes of people and their retail tax dollars to suburban cities while Little Rock stagnates.

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I sought a comment from the Highway Department last week but didn’t get a response. Their answer is in an article by Noel Oman in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which buries in paragraph 18 the news that state officials hope Arkansas taxpayers will approve the sales tax increase to enable a cool $1 billion for Little Rock. You know, the city so many love to hate for its crime, abundant minorities and liberals and “failing” schools. Randy Ort of the Arkansas highway department is quoted in the D-G:

“The thought process is if Issue 1 passes, we will do that work with that revenue from Issue 1, but it is more than Metroplan authorized or allowed,” Ort said. “If it all passes in November, we will be ready to move forward. The bottom line is you can only spend it if you can have it.”

The Metroplan approval is just a low bureaucratic hurdle for the highway builders. The first public notice came in a legal ad a week ago (not counting a Spanish-language ad in a tiny weekly paper six days earlier.)

Here’s the notice. You can comment on the restoration of the full scope of the concrete ditch through April 20. Not that Metroplan will pay it any mind.

Mays notes the difference between the original project it wants Metroplan to OK and the recent modification.

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ArDOT’s website for the 30 Crossing project states that they are going to do a “modified” version of the project, which would cover the area from the intersection of I-30 and I-630 north to the intersection of I-30 with I-40.

This is confusing and raises some interesting questions. One question is whether ArDOT has abandoned the “modified” Project that is described on ArDOT’s “30 Crossing” website that we have discussed recently. Or, whether ArDOT is trying to cover all of its bases and is leaving open both options, with the full project to be performed if Issue 1 passes, but the modified version performed if it doesn’t. ArDOT told me a couple of months ago that they are doing an analysis to determine whether they need to formally supplement the EA issued in February of last year, and from what I hear, ArDOT has not completed the review.

ARDOT seems to answer that it will build whatever the taxpayers will bear. But which project will it defend in court?  The hope is that Mays will get a fair hearing in federal court on the failure of the state to consider the many problems created by either version of the project — pollution, neighborhood damage, induced traffic demand and more. Interstate 630, newly widened, is a testament to the likely result. It is not a pretty sight, what with new traffic pressure points already evident on Interstate 430.

A billion for Little Rock isn’t exactly a sales tax campaign slogan, except of a perverse sort: “Stick it to Little Rock at the pump.”

The campaign for this tax increase — to reinstitute permanently a tax that was supposed to expire in 2022  (and which could have expired earlier had early repayment of the bonds it financed been allowed) — faces another impediment. That is the idea of raising taxes in the face of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., a former highway commissioner and staunch advocate of the I-30 ditch, recently dropped his plan for a city sales tax increase this year. Smart politics.

The highway tax increase CAN’T be dropped. The legislature put it on the ballot and there it will be regardless. The timing is poor, with a lot of people thinking we will be living in a dramatically different world when (if) the virus threat passes. With so much need around, will the fat cats pour huge sums into promoting a sales tax increase that hits the poorest people hardest? Their history on workers comp, unemployment benefits and malpractice and negligence lawsuits suggests the answer.