The board of Metroplan will meet by video conferencing at 10 a.m. Wednesday and the agenda includes the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s request for the planning agency to again include its original billion-dollar Interstate 30 widening plan, the so-called 30 Crossing, in the regional transportation plan.

This is the project being challenged in federal court for an inadequate environmental review, including the damaging impact on traffic congestion on connecting highways and the city street grid. When the original project grew from around $630 million to almost $1 billion, the state scaled it back. But it holds out the possibility that state voters will approve a sales tax increase in November to provide $350 million more to build the big concrete ditch for seven miles through the heart of downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. Last week, a federal judge granted attorney Richard Mays’ request that the state give a status report on what it plans and what it has reviewed relative to either version of the project. The state has been obfuscating, seemingly in hopes of dodging the environmental lawsuit while continuing to work on the hoped-for giant widening project.

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The project will replace the Arkansas River bridge (a desire driven by river transportation concerns as much as the age of the bridge) and also is supposedly intended to alleviate negligible congestion on the road to speed commute times for suburban dwellers who work in Little Rock but leave little tax money or public school children in the capital city

Given that Metroplan’s board is stacked with regional members — and that Little Rock’s mayor is a former highway commissioner who loves highway construction projects — I expect a speedy cramdown of the public interest on this vote, though negative comments have been filed. The Metroplan staff comments in essentially approving remarks that the bigger project was approved once before.

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Attorney Mays says the law prevents approval of a project without a reasonable expectation money will be available. The staff report says it believes the inclusion of the project in state planning and the hopes for a sales tax increase vote meets the standard of reasonableness.

The public will be able to watch the meeting live on Metroplan’s Facebook page. Comments also may be made on the Facebook page as the meeting progresses. Those comments will be “captured and appended to the official record” so don’t be shy if you disapprove of what you hear your public officials say.

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Comments against the proposal outweighed those in favor 33-19. Supporters primarily said widening the freeway would be good for economic development. Apart from creating construction jobs for a time, it’s not clear why 10 lanes instead of six would be good for economic development. Another faith-not-fact argument was that widening the concrete ditch through downtown would spur growth in Central Arkansas. (Yes, maybe make more people flee for Conway, Lonoke, Bryant, etc.) Several cited the park space that will be created (with no money yet to create the park) by removal of the Second Street exit, but not the acres of concrete that will overlay other places and further divide neighborhoods while increasing air pollution. The supporters also claimed greater access to downtown, an arguable comment based on past testimony to the Little Rock City Board by experts on the mess it will cause on city street traffic flow. Again, no money is provided to mitigate this damage.

Opponents said even a sales tax increase might not produce enough money for the original plan and noted the upheaval caused by coronavirus that makes planning for any major project problematic these days. They also criticized the state’s changes in the project and failure to provide information.

Said one comment:

Even in the 1950’s planners knew routing interstate highways through the heart of metropolitan areas was bad public policy that damaged municipal economies, displaced residents and senselessly destroyed neighborhoods.

All we are accomplishing . . . is to facilitate sprawl, while further blighting a dynamic are[a] of the city.

Nonetheless, the staff concluded:

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Previous actions of the Metroplan Board approved 30 Crossing for construction. The proposed amendments to the LRMTP and TIP do not change the project description or its prior approval but reflects a new financial reality for the project. During the public comment period respondents raised several sensible concerns and expressed their desire for additional information on project revisions. These are concerns that the ArDOT and FHWA should consider as it finalizes the design, construction plans, and conducts final environmental review of the project. The Metroplan Board must decide if this information is pertinent to its vote on the amendment.

Here’s the full agenda, with the relevant portion beginning on page 29.