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Changing the grid 

One way streets can offer the quickest way to get from point A to point B. Traffic lights can be timed. Drivers can sail down the road. But one-ways are also confusing. Miss your destination and you have to circle the block. Turn the wrong way and you risk giving your passengers a heart attack.

If you think it's difficult to navigate Little Rock's downtown one-way streets, try being a tourist or a newcomer. One Little Rock citizens' group is trying to eliminate one-way streets downtown, or at least start a discussion on the subject.

Various downtown organizations, including the Quapaw Quarter Association, Downtown Little Rock Partnership, Downtown Neighborhood Association and Southside Main Street, among others, have teamed up to form the Heart of the City Coalition. The group is asking Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and City Manager Bruce Moore to move forward with a plan to change one-way streets into two-ways where possible.

Cheri Nichols, a member of the Heart of the City Coalition, says Little Rock's traffic plan is outdated.

“A lot of people downtown, both residents and business owners, feel that we're living with planning decisions that were made in the '60s during urban renewal and at the height of interstate construction,” Nichols says. “And we don't want to do things like that anymore.”

Kate East, chair of the coalition's Physical Connections committee, agrees.

“The overall goal is to change the mindset,” East says. “We want to shift the focus from the vehicle to the pedestrians, the residents and the property owners in the area. Downtown should be a destination, not something that people speed through.”

But making the change from one-way to two-way streets might not be as simple as some might think, says Bill Henry, traffic engineer for the city of Little Rock. Right now, interstate interchanges dictate which way some streets run. There are other considerations as well, like curbs, medians, markings and islands.

“You can't just go out there and say, ‘we're going to make everything two-way today,'” says Henry. “It's going to be an expensive ordeal. You're going to have to do geometric changes, signal changes, sign changes. It's a pretty big deal.”

The cost of restructuring one intersection can cost as much as $25,000 to $30,000, according to City Manager Moore.

“A lot of it is going to have to do with the expense,” says Nichols. “Ultimately I think we'll probably settle on the low-hanging fruit, the streets that would be easiest to deal with initially. Then we'll move on to the harder ones.”

Henry says the city is currently looking at three streets downtown: Cumberland, Rock and Scott south of the freeway. The streets are mostly residential in that area.

But some are concerned that eliminating one-way streets will cause congestion problems. Henry says that's something the city will take into consideration before making any changes.

“We're going to go out and do traffic assessments and we're going to make sure we know what the traffic volumes are,” he says. “We'll make sure that if a change is made we'll still be able to have good traffic circulation downtown.”

Others hope it will slow things down a bit. According to East, slower traffic will be good for local businesses.

“Instead of the focus being getting down the street as fast you can, it slows people down while they're driving by businesses and it allows people to access those businesses from both sides of the street,” she says.

So what happens now? Officials from the city Public Works Department met with the coalition recently. Moore says he's asked the department to determine the feasibility of making the changes. In the meantime, the coalition members will make sure their neighbors who live along each street are on board.

“We don't want to go forward unless everybody's behind it,” East says.

Henry says it's hard to set a definite time-table because each street is unique. In the future, he says the city will look at other one-way streets north of I-630, something East, Nichols and others would welcome. Moore says that changes may be possible in the downtown business corridor as well. Some streets, though, will always be one way.  For example, Moore says Second Street, which comprises part of the trolley route, will not change.  

“Over the past few years, we've really had a focus on how to move pedestrians through our downtown area, so I think this is just an added element of that initiative, and it's something we'll continue to look at,” Moore says.

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