The Board of Directors of Metroplan, a regional transportation policy authority, on Wednesday approved a request from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to waive a six-lane limit to a 6.7-mile stretch of Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.
The approval of the waiver allows the department to take a further step toward completing its plan to expand the portion of the interstate to either eight or 10 lanes. The proposal is part of an estimated $600 million project to revamp the state’s most traveled section of interstate that would also include the replacement of the Arkansas River bridge.
The vote by the board of directors, which consists of county judges, mayors and transportation officials was nearly unanimous. Jarrod Varner, executive director of Rock Region Metro, voiced the lone vote to oppose the waiver.
Before the board took a vote on the waiver request, several citizens spoke against it during public comments. They cited a need for officials to consider alternative modes of transportation, further improvements to non-freeway regional arterial networks and the potentially harmful impact to the downtown Little Rock area by a highway expansion.
Those voicing their support for the waiver said the project would ultimately improve the safety of drivers traveling through the corridor and exiting in one of the two municipalities.
Before the vote, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said the willingness of the state Highway Department to compromise with local officials on the plan’s design of downtown interchanges should arouse support. Stodola remarked that an AHTD plan for a “split diamond” interchange pattern would greatly improve the flow of traffic downtown near the River Market as well as allow for the creation of a downtown park.
Metroplan’s staff had recommended approving the waiver. During a presentation, staffer Casey Covington said the agency arrived at its decision through an analysis showing the potential for traffic bottlenecks on sections of freeways connected to the north and south terminals of I-30 if the expansion weren’t carried forward. He also said the staff determined that replacing the I-30 bridge and making improvements to other aspects of the corridor could not adequately take shape without the waiver’s approval.
The Board of Directors decision came a week after Metroplan’s Regional Planning Advisory Council, or RPAC, voted 20 to 3 against the waiver request. The advisory council’s vote was non-binding, but many members also repeated the concerns of Little Rock neighborhood groups, saying that expanding the interstate would severely limit the development of streets and public transit in the capital city.
Some citizens who spoke during the meeting’s public comments period also suggested the possibility of federal lawsuit being filed to delay or stop the “30 Crossing” project. They expressed concern over the timeline of the project’s environmental impact study on the corridor, which is currently underway. The environmental study’s anticipated completion date is the Spring of 2017. One of the speakers, Kathy Wells of the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods, suggested the environmental assessment should have been completed before Metroplan's board took a vote on the waiver of the six-lane limit.
The board still must also approve amendments to Metroplan’s long range transportation document, “Imagine Central Arkansas,” as well as a separate Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) document in order to clear the way for the highway department to begin construction. The environmental impact study would also need to show a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI), before plans can carry forward.