In the coming weeks, the regional transportation policy agency Metroplan will open up a public comment period on the proposed widening of Interstate 30 in Little Rock and North Little Rock near the Arkansas River. The project, expected to cost more than $600 million, has attracted much public debate over the last year for the significant changes it could bring to the downtown area.
The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department is currently undertaking a federal environmental assessment of the proposed project. The assessment is called a NEPA study, after the National Environmental Policy Act.
In order to sign off on the project, Metroplan Executive Director Tab Townsell says his agency’s board of directors would still have to amend two separate policy documents. One of those documents is the agency’s long-range transportation plan, called Imagine Central Arkansas. The other is the agency’s four-year Transportation Improvement Program document, or TIP. Both policy documents were approved by the agency’s board of directors, which mainly consists of mayors and county judges from central Arkansas. They set a binding infrastructure policy for the region, and prioritize infrastructure projects based on the financial constraints of the local communities and governing bodies.
Townsell says that in order for the I-30 corridor project to move forward, the Imagine Central Arkansas document would have to be amended to include language allowing for “major widening” of area interstates, as requested by the AHTD. The four-year project document would need to be amended to include details about the “30 Crossing” project. Both would have to be made by the board of directors. Townsell says a 30-day public comment period on the proposed changes would likely come in May or June, with a public meeting to be held around that time as well. A vote on changing long-range planning document would likely come in June.
Townsell says he understands that the 30 Crossing project is controversial.
“It’s one of those projects where I don’t see us ever coming to some middle ground where everybody’s happy about it and we reach across the aisles. But obviously, some decision is going to have to be made. But the public hearing is designed to let people speak their mind on the issue both for and against. And we encourage that when we do get [the meeting date] announced, that everybody who is interested, to have their say and participate,” he says.
Last year the Metroplan Board of Directors voted to amend its long-range planning document to remove a provision that limited regional freeway expansion to six lanes. The AHTD has floated plans for expanding I-30 to 10 lanes or eight lanes through Little Rock and North Little Rock from the I-530 interchange to the I-40 interchange, in a project that will also include the replacement of the Arkansas River Bridge.
“If Metroplan does not vote to accept this project, then by federal law, monies can’t be spent on this project in this jurisdiction. We don’t have a right to pitch the ball so to speak. But we have a right to call balls and strikes,” says Townsell.
The agency is a Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO. MPO’s were founded around the country after the passage of the 1962 Federal-Aid Highway Act a way of controlling the effects of expanding the interstate highway system in U.S. cities. MPO’s set polices for urban areas that have populations greater than 50,000.
Funding for the 30 Crossing project comes in part from half cent sales tax collections that Arkansas voters approved in 2012. The revenue from the sales tax went to fund the highway department’s “Connecting Arkansas Program.” According to the AHTD, about 64 percent of the $631.7 million budget will come from CAP funds. The I-30 project would also receive a share of federal funds.
The Highway Department has anticipated completion and federal approval of the environmental assessment before the end of the year. The department also expects to settle on a design for new I-30 sometime around late 2017 or early 2018. The department says construction would begin in mid-2018 and last about four years.