Big day today for challenges to the Arkansas Department of Transportation to fund past and current freeway projects: A federal court hearing and a new state lawsuit tied to loss of hundreds of millions in expected revenue.
In federal court
Federal Judge James Moody heard competing arguments for summary judgment in the lawsuit challenging the sufficiency of the environmental review for the Arkansas Department of Transportations’ $1.3-billion plan to widen Interstate 30 for seven miles through Little Rock and North Little Rock, including an Arkansas River bridge replacement.
He took the matter under advisement.
The various arguments had been laid out previously and Moody had already signaled sympathy for the state in refusing to issue an injunction halting the work pending trial of the case. He seems to think Little Rock needs 10 lanes of freeway to minimally reduce rush-hour congestion, regardless of what harm it might cause.
But a major wrinkle was added to the case this week and it occupied most of the discussion today. Richard Mays, lead attorney for plaintiffs in the public interest lawsuit, noted that a state Supreme Court ruling in a separate suit strips the state of the ability to use almost $500 million in temporary sales tax money for the project. Plus it seems likely to have to repay money already spent on this and an Interstate 630 project already completed. Mays argues the state must be compelled to explain how it can pay for the project, and if the project will be changed, by the loss of that money. The state and federal Highway Administration are resisting that argument. They say only the sufficiency of the environmental review is at issue and loss of the money wouldn’t change the environmental assessment that’s been done.
Mays argued that Phase 1 of the giant project, a new bridge and rebuilding a highway around it, will devolve into chaos without sufficient funding. Mays said the judge asked Rita Looney, the state’s attorney, if it determined how it would make up the loss of funding. She said it would reprogram some funds. Specifics lacking. Taxpayers might wonder how it is — if the highway department has that much spare change lying around — it needed the recent tax increase voters just gave it. People around the state will be interested to know which projects have been delayed or scrapped to pay for the billion-dollar Little Rock boondoggle.
The theory of this motion is that funding – especially 2/3rds of the total funding for Phase 1 — is an essential part of the project, and that lack of funding to complete that phase would have impacts on the human environment. Phase 1 is essentially demolition and rebuilding of the I-30 bridge and the highway around it, and if there isn’t sufficient funding to complete that, it would cause chaos. Under NEPA regulations, I argued that the Supreme Court’s decision was “new information or circumstances” that are required to be considered by an EIS or a Supplemental EA.
Voters have approved a new sales tax increase for highways that is expected to contribute to the cost of the so-called 30 Crossing project. But that money doesn’t begin flowing until 2023 and it provides only $200 million a year for state highway work, in theory for maintenance of roads statewide, not solely for a Little Rock freeway project.
New state lawsuit
Mays, on behalf of the same citizen plaintiffs and organizations in the federal suit, said he filed a new lawsuit in Pulaski Circuit court today asking for an injunction to stop work on both the 30 Crossing project and an Interstate 30 widening project in Saline County until the Department of Transportation can show it has reprogrammed money to cover the loss of the temporary sales tax money provided by Amendment 91. This is the money the Supreme Court has said could be spent only on four-lane projects, not widening existing freeways to as many as 10 lanes. This would force the highway department to allocate the money or shut down the project. The Saline County project depended on $120 to $140 million in the sales tax money. Yet to be determined in further hearings in a separate state lawsuit is how the state will repay money spent on a completed I-630 widening project that relied illegally on the Amendment 91 money.
Between 30 Crossing, the Saline County project and the complete I-630 project, you are talking at least $1.5 billion worth of work, some of it paid with federal money, but the majority requiring state money.