This week a group of county judges and mayors from around central Arkansas will consider lifting a six-lane limit to a 6.7 mile stretch of Interstate 30. The Board of Directors of Metroplan, a transportation planning authority, will likely decide the issue at its Wednesday meeting.
A rule limiting freeways in the region to six lanes is written into the long-range transportation planning document developed by Metroplan called Imagine Central Arkansas. It comes from the agency’s federal mandate to set the area’s transportation policy. The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has pushed Metroplan to approve a waiver on the 6-lane cap. That means the department can take a step closer to expanding Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock to eight or 10 lanes. The AHTD has characterized the eight and 10 lane options as six lanes with additional "collector/distributor" lanes.
The $600 million project also calls for replacing the bridge over the Arkansas River. Metroplan’s staff has recommended approval of the waiver. Executive Director Jim McKenzie says the decision was based on studying the need to improve the I-30 Bridge and rework the freeway’s connecting interchanges.
“What we did as staff was to say ‘ok, let’s see if we can make these improvements that we’ve identified in the long range plan and stay within a strict interpretation of the six-lane cap and we couldn’t do it,'” says McKenzie.
But the plan to expand the interstate still draws a hefty opposition, as exhibited through a recent round of public comments. The waiver request drew fewer comments in support. Last week, Metroplan’s regional Planning Advisory Council, or RPAC, voted 20 to 3 against recommending the waiver. Becca Greene, a spokeswoman for Rock Region Metro, sits on that advisory council. She says her agency and others were simply advocating for a balanced approach to transportation policy.
“When we say balanced approach, we’re talking about a three-pronged approach: investing in our arterial networks of roads, investing in public transit and curbing highway expansion,” she says.
Green says the Board of Directors should listen attentively to the message sent at the RPAC meeting.
“I hope that they take all those comments into consideration and think very carefully because we are making major investments in primarily one mode of transportation right now that will affect our area and the way our cities develop for decades to come,” Green says.
Most of the mayors and county judges who sit on the Metroplan board don’t govern over the immediate area affected. But many of their constituents commute along the 6.7 mile stretch. Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert says his decision to support the I-30 lane expansion is mostly about protecting drivers.
“The current designs of the ingress/egress, merge lanes, etc. are really a large safety hazard and detriment to the motoring public and I think for that reason the plan that the highway department has come up with would begin to address that,” he says.
The state highway department estimates nearly 80 percent of vehicles entering the I-30 corridor are destined for the downtown area. Jacksonville Mayor Metroplan Board President Gary Fletcher also intends to vote to lift the six-lane cap this time. But he hopes the decision will not set a precedent for the eventual erosion of that limit on other freeways in the region.
“Well once you open the door, you always open the door…But I think that on my part I’m going to make it clear on the front end that this is not going to commit me to anything in the future,” Fletcher says.
Metroplan’s staff has said, based on a systems analysis released last year, that widening I-30 would induce demand for more traffic on connecting freeways over the ensuing decades.
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith and County Judge Barry Hyde, all board members, told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette they too support lifting the cap. The three also say they also support the Highway Department’s design of a downtown interchange that shifts traffic away from the current flow onto 2nd Street and La Harpe Streets over to 4th and 6th streets in a “split diamond” interchange pattern.
A decision on the 6-lane limit is just one of a few more steps in the process toward finally approving the “30 Crossing” project. An environmental impact study is still underway. And after the board’s decision this week, the group would still need to amend Metroplan’s long-range transportation plan as well as a separate Transportation Improvement Program document so that federal funding can open up for the project.
The Metroplan Board of Directors will meet 10 a.m. Wednesday, August 31 at 501 W. Markham St. Suite B in Little Rock.