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The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department may have done more than any green movement to drive home the idea that Little Rock needs to get serious about what it will look like in 20 years.
Does the city want to build on downtown's comeback with a plan for more livable, vibrant, progressive development and fewer parking lots than shops, businesses, homes and parks, the reverse of today's land use? Does it want to slow expensive suburban expansion that harms the heart of the city? Can we afford the never-ending expanded road building that highway expansion begets?
It's not a new idea, that a 21st century Little Rock should include less reliance on the air-dirtying cars and create a more people- and business-friendly city landscape with public transportation, including light rail, bike and walkway connections in both commercial and residential areas, and the attendant cleaner air, healthier lifestyle and connected community.
It was not the intent of the AHTD to rev up such discussion, but it did, by applying 20th century highway-think to mid-21st century highway design. Laboring away in what some have described as an echo chamber, the AHTD's Connecting Arkansas Program (CAP) to improve highways, with the promise of almost $2 billion from a 10-year half-cent statewide sales tax levied since 2012, unveiled in April its 30 Crossing proposal to turn the highway into a 10-lane river of concrete through downtown North Little Rock and Little Rock.
CAP's rollout of its plans has energized architects, urban planners, downtown residents and activists to advocate for a different schematic, one that does not include creating a 335-foot-wide underpass that makes the division between East Little Rock and downtown even wider, or that, in the year 2040, would allow cars to whip through Little Rock, eight lanes apart, even at rush hours.
After a public meeting Oct. 22 at which CAP explained its designs, a call for a "timeout" on the project was issued by the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, the nonprofit organization created to promote business, economic development and cultural initiatives in the downtown area. StudioMAIN, the community-focused design collective that's played a role in the revitalization of the South Main district, has sketched up alternative proposals. Democratic state Rep. Warwick Sabin, who represents a portion of downtown, issued a statement saying the plan "creates more problems than it solves, and it would reverse all of the recent progress we have been making toward building a more vibrant, efficient, and unified city." The highway department declined to call a moratorium on the project, but extended a comment period by a month to Dec. 6 and asked to present the project to the City Board of Directors.
Here is one way to picture the difference the proposed 10 lanes will make on the Little Rock side of the I-30 bridge. Walk from the east side of the bridge on President Clinton Avenue as it leads to the Clinton President Center and stop at the fourth tree on the left. Look toward the river. The rolling slopes of the Clinton Center lawn will be under the bridge and its collector-distributor (C/D) lanes. The width of the bridge narrows south of the C/D lanes to 165 feet, 50 feet wider than the current expanse, according to AHTD spokesman Danny Straessle.
The widening itself, as unappealing as it is, is not the only point of contention. The project is devoid of public transportation accommodation, except for a plan to let buses drive on the shoulder during periods of heavy traffic. The cost-benefit ratio of the project has been challenged. The leaders of the CAP project — manager Jerry Holder, an engineer with Garver Engineers, which contracted with the AHTD to do initial studies, and AHTD Director Scott Bennett — have been tone deaf, described as less than responsive to professional and lay advisers who, during the year-long planning and environmental linkages (PEL) study of ways to improve the I-30 corridor, advocated for considerations of public transit and fewer lanes; they've shed all but AHTD-conceived ideas for the project.
The design has been criticized for not taking into account technological changes, including on society, as more people telecommute, and on cars, engineered for automatic safety. In the public comment period after the City Board meeting Nov. 3, downtown resident Carol Worley expressed frustration with the highway engineers' position that much of the new design is for safety reasons. "We have cars that brake on their own," Worley told the City Board. "Cars will be driving themselves."
Most important, perhaps, is that, according to the Central Arkansas planning agency Metroplan, ripples from the I-30 project impact will require billions of dollars in highway investment that the public cannot afford.
Is building a 10-lane corridor at a cost of $100 million a mile inevitable? Is it possible to stop the highway department juggernaut?
Interstate 630, which divides the north part of Little Rock from the south through what was once the city's most vibrant African-American business and entertainment district, was held up for 16 years by litigation and community pressure. The first mile was completed in 1969. The seven-and-a-half-mile freeway wasn't fully built until 1985 and its construction has been linked to entrenched segregation, with struggling black neighborhoods south and affluent white neighborhoods north.
Highway engineers insist they are amenable to change and they will find a design that suits most of the concerns of downtown Little Rock, though they note there is no way to make everyone happy. But it's not just up to them.
Most of us don't know what makes our cars run; we let others work under the hood. So what will make 30 Crossing run?
Before the AHTD can enter the design-build phase of the project, it must earn approval from both federal and local authorities. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) wants the AHTD to restore an alternative eight-lane plan, which the state highway department originally rejected. 30 Crossing also requires a finding of no significant impact (a FONSI) from its NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review, which has begun.
But before that happens, Metroplan has work to do.
The federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for Pulaski, Faulkner, Saline and Lonoke counties, Metroplan is required by the federal government to create short- and long-range transportation studies constrained by realistic estimates of funds. Its board essentially has veto power over the 30 Crossing project.
For any expansion of I-30, the AHTD must persuade the board to revise its policy that highways should be no more than six lanes.
Members of Metroplan's Regional Planning Advisory Council, which is to advise the board on whether to either amend policy or grant the highway department a waiver for 30 Crossing, were given a primer on Nov. 4 by Metroplan Director Jim McKenzie and Metroplan's Central Arkansas Regional Transportation Study (CARTS) Director Casey Covington on what impact widening the highway would have on Central Arkansas.
McKenzie cited studies showing that reducing highway congestion has a couple of immediate benefits: Travel delays and vehicle operating costs go down. However, those benefits have impacts down the line — like seeing people and jobs move to the suburbs. Covington presented his data showing that the improvements on 6.7 miles of I-30 only create bottlenecks elsewhere, and that for the Central Arkansas highway system to work at the same level of service as 30 Crossing, without bottlenecks, it will cost $3 billion to $4 billion. Since that money will not be available, bottlenecks outside the corridor are inevitable, Covington said.
If the RPAC decides to advise the board to change its policy (a part of its long-range plan, Imagine Central Arkansas, which can be found on Metroplan's website), a public comment period of 15 to 30 days must be set and then the board of Metroplan — composed of the mayors, county judges, the head of public transit company Rock Region Metro and a representative from the highway department — must vote on the change.
If the amendment is agreed upon, Metroplan must amend another federally mandated plan: the Transportation Improvement Plan, which it writes every three years. The TIP sets forth all transportation projects to be undertaken within the next four years. Changes to the TIP also require a public comment period, which may either be separate from or at the same time as the comment period for a plan amendment.
Only after Metroplan amends the TIP and its policy can the AHTD proceed with the I-30 widening project.
This is where Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola comes in. If history is any example, the board could heed a request from him not to allow the amendment to allow the widening. The mayor of Sherwood exerted similar pressure when the highway department was working on the North Belt Freeway that would have completed the bypass system around Little Rock. (That and other factors mean the North Belt is dead.)
The Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods is demanding that Stodola heed opponents of the proposal. In a letter to the mayor, signed by coalition president Kathy Wells, the association described Stodola's role as "pivotal," and said that it "intends to make such a strong case against the current proposal that you will agree, and vote No, when the Metroplan Board takes up a state request for a waiver of its six-lane limit for highways, so 10 lanes could be built." Stodola's position, the letter says, "will guide board action."
Expect some of that pressure to come at a Nov. 16 hearing at the Clinton Center by the AHTD. There, the public will be able to address the engineers, which it wasn't able to do at the City Board meeting. The hearing will run 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Great Hall.
Holder, the CAP manager, who is also director of transportation at Garver Engineers, told the City Board at last week's meeting that the AHTD did not want "to cram the project" down the public's throat. Why would he have to make such a statement?
Because the AHTD just woke up to the fact that 10 lanes weren't going down well with many in the public.
Perhaps the first public sign of discontent was the revelation that the plan called for doing away with the River Rail trolley route east of I-30. A "single point urban interchange" — also known as a SPUI and, to the layperson's eye, indistinguishable from a four-way intersection with a stoplight — that would replace the Second, Third and Fourth street passages under the interstate to create access to I-30 couldn't accommodate River Rail traffic, designers said. That meant the dismantling of a seven-year-old rail route installed with some $10 million in federal transit funds and an end to plans to extend the rail further east. It also meant the state would have to pay back the federal government the estimated $10 million and that the federal government would laugh at future requests from Little Rock for rail funds.
The AHTD defended the plan at first, saying the main east side trolley destination, the Clinton Presidential Center, didn't much care about the River Rail, because the number of tourists it brought was so low.
Christopher East, a member of CAP's Stakeholder Advisory Group meant to advise planning on the interstate, said he learned of the decision to cut off the River Rail trolley at a meeting in October. He said he was surprised, and so was Jimmy Moses, the downtown developer and member of the board of directors of Rock Region Metro (formerly Central Arkansas Transit), at the news. Despite questions from supposed advisers about the wisdom of the move, East said, Holder cut off discussion, saying the committee should move on. At that point, Moses and East got up and left the meeting.
When Jarod Varner, director of Rock Region Metro, learned of the decision, he said that it "flies in the face of the will of the community. ... I think they [the highway department] will hear about it."
Hear about it they did. Like a flashing red light, the decision signaled just how the highway people felt about public transportation and downtown connectivity.
Planners have now backed off killing the River Rail, and Varner said he is "pleased they've listened to vocal advocates for the street car." AHTD Design Build Director Ben Browning said the plan now envisions leaving Third Street intact rather than merging it with Second Street into what McKenzie called "Second and a Half Street" and moving the SPUI to Second Street. The SPUI is for southbound I-30 traffic headed east under the underpass and traffic wishing to get on I-30 northbound from the street.
Next in the headlights: The CAP plan, apparently created at the behest of city officials, to direct traffic exiting Interstate 30 to downtown Little Rock down a three-lane Second Street, where it would make a right at State to access La Harpe. That meant that a) Cumberland would be closed from Markham to Third, b) there would be no parking on Second Street, c) the River Rail tracks on Second would have to be shifted at a cost of $3 million, d) Chester Street would be one-way south from LaHarpe, and e) traffic from LaHarpe to I-30 would be directed down Fourth Street to Cumberland to Third. Why? To alleviate the traffic at the four-way intersection at the entrance to the River Market district: Markham, La Harpe, Cumberland and President Clinton. It's a nightmare intersection for pedestrians, though light delays to halt traffic have helped somewhat.
Stephens Inc., Little Rock's 10-ton gorilla, and other businesses said nothing doing. David Knight, Stephens' general counsel, told the City Board at its Nov. 3 meeting that making Second Street a thruway might solve the problems at the River Market intersection, but it would create new ones along Second for Stephens.
To the uproar, CAP director Holder said he was just now learning "River Market 101."
Why didn't the highway department start with River Market 101? Or work more closely with Metroplan and its Imagine Central Arkansas 20-year plan? Or dust off the city's "Downtown Framework for the Future" (a master planning document updated in 2009)? Or talk to the creative thinkers at studioMAIN about cars and people in 2040? Because it builds highways.
The C/D tendrils replace the circular exit ramps that exist at Second Street now. Highway engineers say the city could build some kind of park there if the highway department chooses to give up its right-of-way. However, should the highway department decide to give up the right-of-way, the previous owners of that land or their heirs would have first right of refusal. The land could be developed however those heirs wish, should it come to that.
Highway engineers maintain that removing the exit loops will open up a view of the Clinton Center. With the C/D lanes on the east side of I-30 in the way, however, that's hard to figure.
While the highway department was busy on the southwest side of town drawing up plans to speed traffic through Little Rock, the architects of the studioMAIN collaborative were at work downtown coming up with better ideas. (And they weren't getting paid for it.)
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a huge difference in your community," said Adam Day, an architect with AMR Architects and member of studioMAIN.
Day has spent nights and weekends coming up with ideas to alleviate traffic on I-30 in ways that don't further degrade the east side. Among his proposals: 12 lanes — but not in Interstate 30. He envisions balancing traffic load instead by building two new bridges to accommodate new four-lane corridors — from I-440 to the U.S. Hwy. 67/I-40 interchange via Bond in Little Rock and Buckeye in North Little Rock and from I-40 to I-630 via Pike Avenue north of the river and along the Baring Cross railroad bridge and over the tracks south of the river. The I-30 bridge would be replaced with a new four-lane bridge split by rail line. The 12 lanes would reduce traffic on the I-30 bridge by a third. An East Little Rock rail stop would serve new development in the area. The highway department rejects light rail out of hand because of its cost, but that has not prevented Day for planning for its eventual construction.
The rail line may be a dream, but the development is not: Cromwell Architects Engineers and Moses Tucker Real Estate have announced plans for a mixed-use development at Sixth and Shall streets, a project Cromwell CEO Charley Penix said would be "the new River Market and Main Street."
At the City Board meeting, architect Tom Fennell said the highway engineers had said nothing about ways to reduce traffic itself, to reduce the demand to keep making highways bigger and bigger. Instead, traffic engineers and urban planners alike say making highways bigger only increases traffic, a phenomenon called "induced demand."
"They started with a 10-lane plan and you are getting a 10-lane plan," Fennell said, obliquely referring to the eight-lane alternative. (The AHTD has not completed preliminary engineering work on the eight-lane alternative, engineer Browning said, explaining its absence in most of the debate.)
"Other cities have plans to reduce the use of cars," and the bike is gaining as a favored mode of transportation, Fennell said, citing as examples Indianapolis, Seattle and San Francisco.
Indeed, some cities are tearing down highways. Seattle is replacing its Alaskan Way Viaduct with a smaller, underground four-lane and building a park and paths to reconnect neighborhoods where the highway once stood. San Francisco tore down a double-decker state highway downtown and replaced it with a public space, new transit routes; the view of the bay was restored. It also removed another highway damaged in an earthquake and replaced it with a boulevard; as a result of both moves, property values have increased. There is a move in Dallas to tear down the highway through Deep Ellum. In St. Louis, the National Park Service is pushing to replace I-70 with an at-grade boulevard. The Denver City Council is pushing the Colorado Highway Department to sink I-70 below grade as it moves through the northeast part of town.
"The highway department is going to do what the highway department is going to do," Fennell said. "Our City Board needs to be more visionary. Our environment will not tolerate" increased vehicular traffic.
Jennifer Herron, an architect with Herron Horton Architects and a member of studioMAIN, says the city needs to take a more "aggressive" stand toward urban planning. The city's planning department is concerned with zoning rather than future urban design, and its zoning code "tends to fully separate residential and commercial uses, to move buildings further apart and farther from streets and sidewalks (if we even have sidewalks), to force low-density development limiting building height and lot coverage, and to require the creation of oversize parking facilities... . You can't make people drive less by giving them incentives to drive more."
Herron was a member of the Visioning committee put together by CAP. It only met twice, and Herron said suggestions to keep the "fabric of the city" from being ripped further by incorporating public transit, pedestrian and biking amenities were met with warnings that they had to remember funding limits. When Holder described to the City Board the work of the Visioning committee as making decisions on "what the concrete should look like," Herron was incensed.
CAP manager Holder, who once worked at the North Texas Tollway Authority, has repeatedly claimed that downtown Dallas was dying until the Texas Department of Transportation expanded the interstates there.
What Holder hasn't said is that Dallas' DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit), created in 1983, has had light rail since 1996 and has added HOV lanes (high occupancy vehicle) to I-30 and other interstates. That there is a move to tear down I-345, which now divides Deep Ellum from downtown. That the city built Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre "deck park" over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway to reconnect divided Dallas neighborhoods.
George Wittenberg, a Little Rock architect who once headed up the defunct Donaghey Project for Urban Studies and Design, proposed such a park over I-630 several years ago, to reconnect neighborhoods north and south of the notoriously divisive highway, blamed for increased segregation in Little Rock.
A Dallas urban planner, who is a native of Little Rock and who also has been collaborating with Cromwell architect East and other members of studioMAIN, has also come up with ideas for new highway design in Little Rock. One would include a "trenched" design that would sink I-30 below grade (as I-630 was as part of a long-running battle over that highway) and reconnect the city with a park like Klyde Warren. Or, replace the freeway with parallel boulevards, change the name of I-440 to I-30 and direct through traffic, which the highway department says accounts for 80 percent of the traffic through Little Rock anyway. (See studioMAIN drawing.)
"These are very big ideas, but it is important for the AHTD and all parties involved to think about the biggest ideas possible before agreeing upon the best solution," the planner, who asked to remain unidentified, said. "I see this freeway topic as a great opportunity for Little Rock and North Little Rock, but only if done with consensus."
At the City Board meeting at the Clinton Center, Holder said he was going to cloister himself with Dallas road engineers for a week before Thanksgiving to come up with a remedy to the River Market intersection traffic that would satisfy city opponents to blocking Cumberland access to La Harpe and opponents to directing all traffic into downtown from I-30 along Second Street. After he and Director Bennett wrapped up their two-hour presentation, the board entertained three-minute comments from the public. First up was Rebecca Engstrom, a downtown resident, who said she "strongly opposed" the notion of turning Fourth and Second Street into three lanes. "My other concern I have is using Dallas planners. Dallas is a disaster." To that, the audience erupted in applause, and Mayor Stodola had to ask the crowd to hold off until the end of the public comment period. He was largely unsuccessful in getting his way.
The portion of the project to be financed by the sales tax is $450 million, the CAP funds. The whole project is estimated today to cost $650 million. Of that, $90 million will come from a federal program for bridge repairs that the AHTD receives yearly, $22.7 million will come in interstate reconstruction funds, and the remainder will be financed. AHTD Director Scott Bennett told the Little Rock City Board at a special meeting Nov. 3 at the Clinton Presidential Center that the agency will ask to pay project contractors over time, with future federal highway receipts and grants.
There are 19 highway projects to be financed by the $1.8 billion that CAP anticipates taxes will generate. The I-30 corridor project, called 30 Crossing, will eat up a third of that money — it's the biggest public works project in the state's history.
The AHTD originally included in its available funds $200 million in TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant money. In the application, the AHTD wrote, "Total cost of this Project is $650,000,000 — larger than the annual federal construction budget of AHTD. The dollar amount and large scope of this project makes funding difficult. AHTD is requesting $200,000,000 in TIGER funds. The balance of funding will come from CAP funds, and $22 million from AHTD's Interstate Rehabilitation Program (IRP). Unless full TIGER funding is received, many items in the project scope will have to be removed."
At the Nov. 3 City Board meeting, however, Bennett cavalierly said the department never expected to win the whole amount, but hoped for $10 million. As it turned out, it won nothing. Bennett was not asked, and did not volunteer, just what would be cut from the project, but it's likely to be the amenities that the AHTD told City Director Kathy Webb would "stitch back" neighborhoods.
Holder and Bennett explained to the City Board the "needs" of the 30 Crossing corridor: To ease congestion, increase safety and improve functionality. Their speed profiles, using projected growth data for 2041 estimated by Metroplan, show how the 10-lane design allows Interstate 30 to meet the highway standard of "level of service" D: a level at which cars flow spaced at 160 feet, or about eight car lengths, during rush hours.
The speed profiles show that northbound cars would be able to drive between 60 and 70 miles an hour between U.S. 67 and the I-30 and I-40 merge. South of that merger, traffic on I-30 could move at between 50 to 60 miles per hour all the way to the I-630 exit.
At the 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 rush hour, traffic would slow to between 20 and 40 miles per hour at the I-30/I-530 interchange. There would be no bottlenecks over the course of the 6.7 miles for north traffic at that time.
People have raised several issues with this goal. A member of the Regional Planning Advisory Committee of Metroplan asked if that meant that between 2020, when the highway is supposed to be complete, and 2041 that I-30 would be a veritable speedway.
More importantly, Metroplan's staff notes that the 30 Crossing speed profiles can't be achieved without other highway widenings, which highway engineers say is correct: The models assume that I-30 has been widened to 8 lanes from the south terminal to 65th Street and that I-630 is widened to 8 lanes from I-30 to Louisiana.
No funds have been set aside for those widenings.
Without those widenings, and changes to the entire Central Arkansas highway system, Metroplan's Covington says, the overall speed benefit to drivers in the whole system will be one-half mile per hour.
The AHTD says if the widening does not go forward, there will be an estimated 729 crashes in the project area in 2040. If it does, there will be only 528. That's a difference of 201 wrecks, 25 years from now.
Bennett also told the City Board that for every highway dollar invested there is a return of $3.50, which is "not a return one can get anywhere else."
But the MoveArkansas blog and others have raised questions about the validity of the project's cost-benefit analysis, which counts, for example, faster drive times as a benefit. But faster drive times could encourage migration from Little Rock to suburbs, which some would consider an economic detriment. And if you can drive faster, will you drive farther? Is there a pollution factor there?
MoveArkansas blogger Tim McKuin, who refers to 30 Crossing as "modern day urban renewal," asked the City Board to "consider the possibility that the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department is wrong ... about what we need. ... It's never too late to reject a bad idea."
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