With groups like the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Little Rock Downtown Partnership and the Clinton School of Public Service won over, it looks like a 10-lane (and, in places, 12) Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock is inevitable.
But others, like architect Tom Fennell, creator of a boulevard plan; urban design consultant Norman Marshall, hired by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel to give an independent review of the highway plan; and commenters on the Improve 30 Crossing Facebook page are likely to continue to bring a halt to the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's plans to widen I-30 to 10 lanes. The highway department says widening is needed for reasons of safety and congestion, but opponents argue that their reasoning is based on outdated ideas of traffic management and design that are being jettisoned elsewhere in the country.
The seven-mile 30 Crossing project stretches from the I-30 intersection with I-40 on the north to its intersections with I-530 and I-440 on the south, and includes rebuilding the bridge over the Arkansas River. That the bridge needs rebuilding is not in dispute: It was built to last 50 years and is 66 years old, and its piers intrude on the main shipping lane of the river.
Though the highway department prefers the 10-lane plan — which it now refers to as 6 lanes with 4 collector/distributor lanes — it was compelled to come up with an 8-lane alternative, which it opted to design as general purpose, without collector/distributor lanes.
The highway department's first design, presented last year, replaced the cloverleaf that channels interstate traffic to Second or Cumberland streets with a "single point urban intersection" (or SPUI) underneath the interstate. That plan was met with objections by Stephens Inc., the Central Arkansas Library System and Mayor Mark Stodola, among others, because it would allow for increased traffic on Second and do nothing to alleviate the problematic four corners intersection of Cumberland, Markham Street, President Clinton Avenue and LaHarpe Boulevard. The new idea of a "split diamond" that would move the southbound exit of I-30 to Fourth Street, thus creating a 17-acre green space, has pacified groups that previously objected, including the Downtown Partnership. Stodola was a vocal proponent of moving the exit.
However, the AHTD drew some heat at a well-attended public hearing last week for including in the event a PowerPoint presentation by StudioMAIN. The PowerPoint showed computer-generated images of the 10-lane plan with parks — including one that bridged the interstate for three blocks — featuring biking and hiking trails, children's areas and other amenities, even a rowing club at the river. At the AHTD's request, StudioMAIN developed a design to improve connectivity between the east and west areas of downtown bisected by the interstate, a major sore point with supporters of downtown development. Cromwell architect Chris East, who presented the PowerPoint, noted that his firm has purchased property in what is being called the "East Village" east of I-30 and sees the importance that the new highway "be done right." He did not express approval of the 10-lane plan outright, but StudioMAIN's drawings do presume a 10-lane plan.
Downtown resident Paul Dodds and others said the AHTD was fooling people into thinking that the parks were part of the highway department's plan, when in fact they would require millions of dollars from the city to build. There is nothing wrong with the plans, he said, but they aren't part of the 30 Crossing project. Architect Fennell also found fault with the designs themselves, because, unlike his at-grade boulevard plan, they do not allow for new development.
In a letter to the Times, Dodds wrote, "I am sure Chris East was not in the least trying to deceive the public, but I had no idea that implementing the Studio Main vision was not part of the AHTD plan till he mentioned almost in passing at the end of his long talk that funding was not in place, and city and private money would be needed. I thought — what??? Are we supposed to fund this with bake sales?
"If a public highway department gives so much precious stage time in a huge public hearing to an attractive plan they don't back, they really need to make the lines known. I have learned since the hearing that the Amendment 91 money paying for most of I-30 Crossing could allow the AHTD to include much of the Studio Main vision into its budget under a broad 'improvements' spending authority. Sadly, the several department reps I spoke with after the hearing all repeated that the Studio Main improvements were too expensive. Green, other than a little astroturf, is not their thing."
Amendment 91, enacted in 2013, allowed the use of a half-cent sales tax after a 2012 referendum in which voters approved the tax for a "four-lane highway system statewide." That language has been cited by opponents to the 30 Crossing plan.
City Director Kathy Webb also found it inappropriate that a representative from Nelson\Nygaard, hired by the city as an independent analyst of the highway plan, also presented at the AHTD hearing, though the representative, Paul Moore, said little other than the firm would present its work to the City Board in late May.
East, in an interview Monday, said he believed he had made clear in his presentation that StudioMAIN's ideas were unfunded. He said StudioMAIN and the highway department "met halfway," and their collaboration could produce such benefits as persuading the AHTD to build the interstate in such a way that it could support a deck park. No, the AHTD won't build a deck park, but a concession to build the highway to support a deck could considerably cut the cost to the city in the future. Besides, he said, "I'm not sold that they're not going to spend any money" on any of StudioMAIN's ideas, though he said it was not the design group's idea to mislead anyone into thinking that it was a "voice" for the agency.
Little Rock "needs a long-term master plan," East stressed, and said he expects that he and others, like Fennell, will bring the community together to advocate for such a plan.
The AHTD sought to make its case against the 8-lane plan with videos showing in 3D what traffic on Interstate 30 would be during the evening rush hour in the year 2041. The videos show badly bottlenecked traffic on the 8-lane plan and zero bottlenecks on the 10-lane (6-plus-4) plan.
AHTD Design Build Project Manager Ben Browning said last week that the data that went into making the videos presumed that Interstate 30 would be widened from I-440 and I-530 to 65th Street. That widening is not included in the 30 Crossing project or, Browning said, the highway department's Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) for 2016-2020, but there "is a likelihood that widening could happen in the future." Unless I-30 is widened to 65th Street, he acknowledged, there would be "significant" congestion on the 10-lane plan as well.
It has been the contention of Central Arkansas planning agency Metroplan that the 30 Crossing project will require the eventual widening of the entire interstate system in Pulaski County, at a cost it's calculated at $4 billion.
The 6 + 4 plan also calls for auxiliary roads alongside the four C/D lanes and the six general purpose, which is why at certain points the interstate (including the C/Ds) will have more than 10 lanes: There will be 12 over the Arkansas River, where the bridge will be 231 feet wide. At East Roosevelt Road, counting the exit lanes, there will be 14 lanes.
Mayor Stodola has begun to call the green space created by the removal of the cloverleaf at the Second Street exit "Central Park." The 17-acre park (not counting the finger of green that will replace the ramp entering Second Street) will be roughly 960 feet east to west and 700 feet north to south. About a fourth of it will be covered by the interstate. The highway department will still own the land, but will have a memorandum of understanding with the city that it may be used as a park, so long as no revenue-producing activities occur there. Spokesman Danny Straessle said the department will level and seed the area; it will be up to the city to develop it.
Will it be more than a weedlot? Absolutely, says the mayor. "I'm totally committed to developing it," Stodola said last week. "We've got a four- or five- year process to develop a design and we'll have partners on it, too, whether it's an NGO or others."
Stodola said "one family" has already committed to support the park and he has no doubt there will be other private commitments as well. "I am an optimist about this and I think others should be as well."
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