The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department is reconsidering an 8-lane option in its proposed widening of Interstate 30 through Little Rock and North Little Rock.
The AHTD held a town hall meeting with citizens at the Clinton Presidential Center Monday night. Jerry Holder, an engineer with contracting firm Garver, defended plans to expand I-30. He said citizen proposals to construct an alternative route east of the current interstate would damage existing neighborhoods.
“Whereas when we're looking at this corridor, we're 99 percent inside the existing right-of-way. We're taking hardly any houses or businesses along this corridor,” he said.
5 homes and 7 businesses would be displaced in the current plan. Holder said he had received citizen proposals that would take the I-30 corridor east of its current location would be damaging to the Hanger Hill neighborhood, require a new bridge over the Arkansas river and would run into the obstacle of spanning a train yard in North Little Rock.
Holder also sought to dispel notions that I-30 could be transformed into a boulevard, as was the case with highways in Portland and Seattle. Those cities already had alternative routes constructed when the cities decided to tear down their shore-side interstates, he said.
Holder also sought to challenge theories that expanding the interstate would induce demand for more traffic and eventually lead to the further expansion of connecting interstates at increasing cost. Holder said residents along College Street, just east of the interstate, already complain of rush hour traffic. Drivers trying to avoid congestion along I-30 take the side streets, That traffic would be induced back onto the interstate, he said.
Analysts with the local planning authority Metroplan have said the I-30 expansion to 10 lanes would require comparable expansions along I-40 and I-630 over the next 20 to 25 years, at a cost exceeding that of the current I-30 proposal, which has an estimated price tag of 600 million dollars. It mostly funded with revenue from a half-cent sales tax that voters across the state approved in 2012.
The Highway Department is considering at an eight lane option for the corridor, Director Scott Bennett later emphasized. “I want to make sure everybody knows that.” The eight lane option had earlier been left behind in a screening process of potential designs. Holder said the Federal Highway Administration and Metroplan urged designers to reconsider 8-lane alternative.
The urban design collective StudioMain is also reforging a relationship with I-30 Crossing engineers to develop a greenspace and pedestrian friendly zone near the Cantrell interchange in downtown Little Rock, while seeking to improve east-west connectivity, Holder said.
Highway officials say they are ditching plans to route exits and on-ramps onto the interstate by way of 2nd and 4th streets and are considering different means of directing traffic in downtown Little Rock. The decision is the result of citizen outcry over potential harms to homes and businesses along those streets. Holder said they are considering a Single Point Urban Interchange. What to do with an intersection near Markham St. and LaHarpe Boulevard is also unresolved, said Holder, noting that it was the heaviest traveled pedestrian intersection in the state.
Near meeting's end, Bennett also indicated that it would also be impractical to replace the Arkansas river bridge if highway designers only considered a 6-lane road.
“I know people talk about what it's going to be like during construction. One of the things I want to mention too—if you think we just need to replace a six-lane bridge with a six-lane bridge—you're going to have to close it down during construction,” he said.
Highway officials are quick to say the 10-lane option, still on the table, means 6 primary lanes accompanied by 4 collector/distributor lanes—which would mostly be used by local traffic traveling within the limits of the two cities. “So as we sit here today we're taking both the 10-lane collector distributor option and the 8 lane general purpose option forward,” said Holder
The engineer from Garver also pointed out that the 4 collector/distributor lanes would not span the entirety of the I-30 corridor, only an area from downtown Little Rock, over the Arkansas river bridge into a portion of North Little. The rest of the highway would remain 6 lanes. Holder said assessments have shown that only 6 percent of vehicles on I-30 pass through the two cities without exiting.
Developers of the project are currently studying environmental impacts, in accordance with the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA. Holder said part of the process is to look at the impact on potential cultural tesources like archeological sites, air quality, traffic noise, wetlands and surrounding communities.
The developments still drew a chorus of citizens questioning society’s very reliance on the interstate highway system. Folks like Steve Clark of the League of American Bicyclists. He said Little Rock has one of the poorest ratios of automobile to bike commuters in the country. While he said his hometown of Minneapolis has a 12 to 1 ratio and Davis, California has a 3 to 1 ratio, Little Rock has a 721 to 1 ratio of car commuters to bicycle commuters . He said the national average is 126 to 1.
“You get what you decide for and I think you can do better than 10 lanes of a freeway,” he said.
But State Senator Linda Chesterfield, another one of about 28 individuals to speak up, said there are many within or near city limits who need the expanded roads.
“This is about the totality of the 30 corridor,” she said. “There are other individuals who need some help getting to work.”