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Central Arkansas Planners Think I-30 Proposal Costly, Inefficient

The state Highway Department’s $450 million plan to widen Interstate 30, a project that includes replacing the Arkansas River Bridge, is generating hand-wringing from area planners.

While they acknowledge the need to widen the corridor, they think improving arterial roads in Little Rock and North Little Rock would be more efficient and less costly and would result in less urban sprawl.

“I think everybody is pretty sure” that the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department’s proposal will cost more than $450 million, said Jim McKenzie, the executive director of Metroplan, a voluntary association of local governments that serves as the metropolitan region’s planning agency.

Metroplan isn’t the only one concerned about the project’s impact. Little Rock and North Little Rock officials are worried about traffic congestion, access and pedestrian safety, among other effects of the project.

The I-30 project calls for creating a 10-lane stretch, five lanes in each direction, between Interstate 40 in North Little Rock and the interchange at Interstate 530 — the route to Pine Bluff — in Little Rock. Also included in the work will be lane widening on I-40 between JFK Boulevard and U.S. Highway 67/167 in North Little Rock and improvements to the Interstate 630 exchange in Little Rock.

McKenzie said he fears that while traffic will flow in that approximately 7-mile corridor once it’s improved, I-630 or other sections of I-40 that haven’t been expanded will experience congestion. As a result, those sections will then need improving, he said.

And that triggers a never-ending demand to spend money, McKenzie said. McKenzie and developers of the region’s long-range transportation plan think that improving the arterial network — the network of roads that carry motorists between major traffic points — would be a more efficient use of highway dollars.

Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department, said the AHTD is playing catch-up with the traffic that’s already there. “There are more than 125,000 vehicles that travel that corridor every day, and it’s only expected to increase by 2041,” he said.

The $450 million estimated price would make the I-30 corridor project the most expensive in the history of the AHTD. And the price could balloon by another $200 million by the time it’s completed, Straessle said.

The project is only about 30 percent designed, he said.

The AHTD has applied for a $200 million grant through a U.S. Department of Transportation program and, according to Straessle, should learn next month whether the grant has been approved.

The project will be the first time AHTD uses a design-build process for the construction, which means an engineer will work with the contractor as the project is built.

That move could save hundreds of thousands of dollars because it will eliminate many of the costly delays caused by change orders, Straessle said. Typically, the AHTD first has a project designed and then bids are taken and the construction starts. “So in the design-build, it’s a more efficient delivery system,” Straessle said. “It’s a time and money saver.”

The AHTD is in the process of completing the National Environmental Policy Act study for the project. Once that receives approval, the next step will be awarding the project to the engineer and contractor team, which could take place at the end of 2017. Construction work on the project could start in 2018, and the project is expected to be completed in 2023.

Straessle said the AHTD will look for a contractor who could “float us $140 million” for the project if the money is needed. The loan then would be repaid at a rate of $20 million a year for seven years.

The $450 million projected cost will be paid from revenue from a half-percent sales tax that Arkansas voters approved in 2012. That tax sunsets in July 2023.

The tax will help pay for about $1.8 billion worth of highway work.

Opened in 1962, the six-lane I-30 river bridge is jammed with traffic during peak hours and it’s getting worse.

“Pretty much every day it backs up starting around 3 o’clock,” said Jimmy Moses, a partner at Moses Tucker Real Estate. His office at 200 River Market Ave. overlooks an on-ramp to the I-30 bridge. “And some days it’s worse than others.”

The bridge also has structural issues, “including hundreds of fatigue cracks, and a large horizontal crack that passes through an entire footing and is visible on both sides,” according to the AHTD 2015 federal grant application.

And getting on the bridge isn’t easy. “When you’re northbound on that Cantrell interchange, … you basically, at the peak hour, just accelerate and close your eyes and hope to hell there’s room for you when you get to the top of the ramp,” Metroplan’s McKenzie said. “So there’s those things that have to be improved.”

McKenzie said the Highway Department’s plan for I-30, however, doesn’t mesh with the long-range metropolitan plan, which is to cap the interstate system at six through lanes.

Some members of the Regional Planning Advisory Council, a group of citizens who developed the long-range plan, have voiced concerns about the Highway Department’s plans. They think that once the I-30 corridor is widened to 10 lanes, then I-630 and I-30 southbound will need to be widened to eight lanes.

The RPAC thought its plans were being “cavalierly tossed out,” McKenzie said.

According to the minutes of the RPAC’s May 30 meeting, RPAC member Todd Larson commented that the I-30 project as conceived by AHTD “throws our whole plan off and we are back to spread and sprawl.”

Larson, the executive director of the North Little Rock Economic Development Corp., didn’t return a call for comment.

McKenzie told Arkansas Business last week that before federal money is used on a project such as the I-30 corridor, federal regulations require that the plan for the project be in Metroplan’s plan. That means the Metroplan board would have to amend its long-range plan to remove the six-lane cap — and McKenzie was noncommittal on that.

“I don’t think you can take it for granted that there will be a plan amendment,” he said. “On the other hand, I think that it would be an overreach to say there’s real danger of there not being a plan amendment. Everybody is working very hard to make this a good and doable project.

“But we’re just not there yet.”

Off-Ramps a Concern

One of the biggest concerns about the early designs of the project is the placement of the off-ramps.

The proposal calls for closing the Sixth Street and Ninth Street ramps. “Then the question is what do you do with the Cantrell interchange?” McKenzie said.

To get from I-30 to downtown destinations such as the Statehouse Convention Center, the Clinton Presidential Library and the Central Arkansas Library System’s main library, most motorists use the Cantrell Road exit that deposits them on Second Street.

“It’s not a very pleasant intersection for pedestrians,” said Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And it’s right in the middle of our pedestrian center downtown.”

Hall also cited concerns about the congestion downtown expected during construction and how motorists will navigate into and out of downtown. The plans, however, are still in development, Hall said, so the LRCVB is waiting to see how they evolve.

Bobby Roberts, executive director of CALS, said he became concerned when he looked at the plans about four months ago. The Second Street off-ramp is just south of the main library at 100 S. Rock St.

“There’s been talk of doing a flyover, where it comes around and basically lets the traffic off on the other side” of Markham Street/President Clinton Avenue, Roberts said.

He said that move would work if the goal was to “move traffic real fast, but it could conceivably cut the corner of the west side of our building off.”

The Clinton Foundation also is keeping a close eye on the project’s development because of the possible impact to the Presidential Library.

Jordan Johnson, a spokesman for the Clinton Foundation, said the foundation will coordinate its exhibits and other activities with the construction work in order to have the least amount of impact on traffic and visitors to the Clinton Center.

North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith said he’s concerned about the initial proposal regarding the off-ramps into the city’s downtown. “They’re going to do away with the Curtis Sykes Drive exit and only have one exit in the corridor for Broadway,” Smith said.

The plan calls for motorists to exit I-30 onto Eighth Street in North Little Rock, he said.

“I’ve talked to the different stakeholders downtown … and we’re going to have to adapt to some of the changes,” he said. “I’m just trying to make the changes as painless as possible.”

Straessle said the models shows that motorists can travel from Little Rock’s downtown to North Little Rock’s without having to access the main six lanes of the I-30 bridge, which would be used for the drivers who want to pass through the downtowns. “That’s a more efficient way to move from point to point,” he said.

Still, Smith said that “nothing was set in stone yet” and he and others continue to meet with officials from the AHTD to express their concerns. “We’re watching it the best we can,” Smith said.

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