The board of directors of Metroplan, the regional planning agency, rubberstamped the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s request to include in the agency’s transportation plans its original nearly billion-dollar design for the Interstate 30 widening project through Little Rock.
The department has said it can’t build the project without money from a tax increase before voters in November. The original $630 million price stage has expanded to $971 million. Since the price went up, the state came up with a reduced plan for what had been a 7-mile project with a new Arkansas River bridge. It originally submitted that plan but now wants the bigger plan included.
The project, regardless of size, is being challenged in a federal lawsuit that says environmental concerns haven’t been adequately assessed, including the creation of new traffic pressure on connecting highways for which no improvement plans are in the works.
Public comments on the state proposal ran heavily negative, but advocates say it would be good for economic development under the theory that a wider highway is always good for business. Traffic congestion would be minimally affected at best on a stretch of road that experiences only brief congestion at rush hours.
Metroplan’s board includes regional officials, who tend to like the idea of getting people home to their communities quicker. Little Rock employs many people from regional cities that have developed shopping facilities that mean sales taxes and income taxes from Little Rock workers don’t provide much benefit for Little Rock Nonetheless the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., a former highway commissioner, support the freeway expansion. It will do damage, without money provided for the city grid, increase air pollution and further divide and damage neighborhoods as earlier freeway projects have done.
Casey Covington of Metroplan emphasized in the discussion that environmental review and design were not the agency’s responsibility. The plans are related to policy and revenue sufficiency.
Of more than 50 comments, Covington read two letters. One was from a supporter who lives in Lonoke County who said the project would enhance economic development by improving access to Little Rock and also provide benefits for pedestrians by conversion of some land around the current 2nd Street exit, which would be removed, to parkland. He also read an opponent’s letter, a North Little Rock resident who objected to the approval of a plan for which funding has not been approved. The half-cent sales tax to come, even if approved, might not meet projections, the letter said, and also questioned a 50 percent increase in cost. “This is concerning to me as a taxpayer,” the letter said.
Generally, supporters favored the project, approved earlier by Metroplan. Opponents emphasized finances, which is essentially the only consideration for Metroplan in amending the plans. Metroplan concluded that there was a “reasonable” expectation money would be available to do the project, as the law requires, because of past success with state sales tax campaigns for highways and support of local officials.
If the sales tax doesn’t pass, Covington said the project still could proceed in phases. Metroplan could just change the plan to reflect changing financial circumstances. Those filing the lawsuit question this premise.
No matter. The amendments to two transportation plans were approved without a question from any board member or debate. There were no dissenting votes from the 20 members present in a meeting conducted by Zoom teleconferencing.