Saturday, October 31, 2015

UPDATE: City Board moves meeting for I-30 discussion

Posted By on Sat, Oct 31, 2015 at 7:21 AM

DISCUSSION COMING: This is how a widened Interstate 30 is currently planned to look. The Highway Department will address rising criticism at a City Board meeting Tuesday.
  • DISCUSSION COMING: This is how a widened Interstate 30 is currently planned to look. The Highway Department will address rising criticism at a City Board meeting Tuesday.
The Little Rock City Board will meet two places Tuesday night — at 5 p.m. at City Hall for the normal meeting and then at 7 p.m. at the Clinton Presidential Center to hear Arkansas Highway Director Scott Bennett discuss the controversial plan to expand Interstate 30 through Little Rock.

The move is to allow for greater attendance. Bennett will be joined by Jerry Holder of the Garver engineering firm, which has a big contract for a sales-tax financed Arkansas road construction program. He has been leading much of the public discussion — too much in favor of the Highway Department's expansive plans for the liking of many who have multiple objections to the work.

A reader this morning proposes this question for the public hearing. My own efforts at getting an answer to this always seem to boil down to better traffic flow at rush hour and safety, which isn't exactly a complete answer. The financial adviser's question:

People like me make a living assisting business people when they are faced with difficult financial decisions. We try to get them to see the cost/benefit trade offs; not only in the short term, but more importantly in the long term.

I have not seen anything published so far that shows the financial benefit of the planned expansions of the I-30 that would justify the cost. There would have to be some kind of calculation that would account for the cost savings for the extra speed that people who are traversing the area and not stopping would save in money.

We have not been enlightened as to how does the government body that is expending the money justify the expense.

Maybe they think the residents of our county would also achieve some cost benefit, but I don't see it nor have I been advised of it.

I'd make it more specific. What are the benefits to Little Rock and North Little Rock for five years of construction disruption, degradation of adjacent property, heightened difficulties in east-west travel, greater air pollution, further encouragement of suburbanization, new barriers to pedestrian, bike and mass transit travel.

Recent blog posts on the subject have included some great comments with readers conversant in urban and highway planning. An additional question might be:

Could you start over with a full consideration of ALL alternatives, beginning with a relocation of the freeway. (Bennett told me an alternative river crossing was briefly considered in the beginning, but deemed impractical.)

PS ON CITY BOARD: I noticed the Board seems likely to speedily approve — with no objections from anyone — establishment of a medical clinic in the Little Rock Port area on Lindsey Road. You'll remember that any potential use of nearby land by an Indian tribe for anything but industrial uses has been described as unsuitable by port and other city officials. The Port has demanded an agreement from the Quapaws not to use its land for any non-conforming use. Don't get me wrong. Bring on the medical clinic. Or a hotel. Or a restaurant. Or a casino. Or a museum. Or whatever private property owners wish to do with their land. Industrial is the lowest zoning classification. Anything else is better. I'm just noting the double standard at work and a city's effort at "taking" from the Indians full use of their ancestral land.

UPDATE: Nickolas Jovanovic, an associate professor at UALR, steps up with some useful information on assessing cost and benefits in this project:

The benefit-cost ratio for an infrastructure project is usually computed as (B-D)/C, where:
B = the annual worth of benefits to the general public
D = the annual worth of disbenefits to the general public
C = the annual worth of costs to the government
A project is deemed to be viable if the ratio is greater than one, i.e., the benefits outweigh the costs.

The costs in the denominator are usually straightforward: costs of acquiring property through purchase or via eminent domain, design costs, construction costs, planned maintenance costs, projected repair costs, etc.

The benefits in the numerator are almost always much less straightforward. For a highway- or bridge-widening project, the most common benefit is reduced travel time for the general public. If the project allows 100.000 vehicles/day to reduce their travel time by 5 minutes, that's 500,000 minutes of time savings. How much is that worth? Well, it might mean a little less pollution (less idling in stop-and-go traffic backups). It could also mean better fuel efficiency (good for drivers and the environment) and fewer gallons of gas sold (bad for gas station owners and good for the environment).

Of course, the main argument is that time is money, and so the time savings must have an economic benefit. However, there is little evidence for this. For most people, their personal time means a lot to them, but not to anyone else, and so there is little, if any, economic benefit by saving 5 minutes on the way to work and another 5 minutes going home. For truckers that are paid my the mile, then there is an actual economic benefit to them if average speeds can be improved (but they can also avoid Little Rock altogether by using I-440).

The disbenefits in the numerator are equally less straightforward. Many disbenefits can be omitted from the ratio due to a lack of information. However, this is where Little Rock and North Little Rock really need to step up and be heard. What is the financial disbenefit associated with cutting off trolley service to the east, where a new development anchored by Cromwell Architects Engineers will be built adjacent to Heifer International and the Clinton Presidential Park? What are the disbenefits for pedestrians? for bicyclists? for those who live in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock? for businesses in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock? for property owners whose land will be taken? for increased air pollution due to increased traffic through the heart of the city? for the lack of mass transit alternatives on the bridge? Etc.

If asked, Garver and AHTD will undoubtedly share an analysis that produces a benefit-cost ratio greater than one and justifies the project. The city and regional planners and agencies (Little Rock and NLR Public Works, Pulaski County Public Works, Rock Region METRO, Metroplan, etc.) need to produce a benefit-cost ratio that includes all of the negative effects and realistically assesses the actual benefits of the project.

Beyond a benefit-cost ratio analysis, environmental impact assessments (EIA) and social impact assessments (SIA) could be performed. The purpose of these assessments is to determine the effects of a project on the natural environment and on society as a whole. In some places, projects cannot move forward unless these assessments are performed in a way that is broadly inclusive and transparent to ensure that all positive and negative effects have been taken into account.

Agencies and groups involved in transportation planning also need to include plans for multimodal urban transportation in their written documents, even if there is no projected source of funding because AHTD uses those written documents when they plan their projects. You can't totally blame 30 Crossing on AHTD and Garver if none of the other agencies and groups responsible for planning have included a vision for multimodal and intermodal transportation in their official written documents. If there are plans that include multimodal and intermodal transportation planning for downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, then those should be immediately shared with the public and with AHTD and Garver.

Finally, as the creator of a new civil and construction engineering program at UALR, some time ago, I requested permission to hire a faculty member with expertise and experience in "multimodal, urban transportation planning." Such a person could be a tremendous asset for central Arkansas.

Large infrastructure projects are, not only about responding to the current needs of society, but also about (quite literally) shaping society for the future. Infrastructure lasts for decades, so this is always true, whether or not people are aware of it when projects are approved.

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