Independent consultant to City Board: Highway department has got it wrong | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Independent consultant to City Board: Highway department has got it wrong

Posted By on Tue, Apr 12, 2016 at 5:54 PM

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The City Board heard a presentation today from an independent planner that the state highway department's methodology for predicting future traffic on Interstate 30 is flawed. Norman Marshall of Smart Mobility, who was hired by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, said the 30 Crossing widening of I-30 from six to 10 lanes would increase traffic, not solve traffic problems.

Marshall's analysis was not unexpected. He's saying what every non-highway-engineer consultant across the country has been saying about widening interstates: More freeway lanes equal more freeway traffic. In Little Rock, Marshall said, I-30's widening will draw traffic away from alternatives, such as the Main Street and Broadway bridges and the other interstates in the Little Rock/North Little Rock corridor.

In the report, Marshall concludes that both highway department and Metroplan modeling "ignores well-documented induced travel impacts."  

"We've been trying to get rid of urban freeway congestion" ever since the urban freeways were built, Marshall said. Highway departments across the country are "not doing a good job of post mortems" to determine why expanding highways has not solved traffic problems.

Since induced traffic is a known result, Marshall asked, why do highway engineers keep trying to build themselves out of congestion? He answered his own question this way: Because engineers are "can do" people "who want to solve problems with the tools they have"; because they have a "myopic focus" on freeways; they fail to understand "complex systems"; and their modeling is inaccurate, based on older algorithms and a lack of access to better computing. Highway engineers "live in a virtual reality," Marshall said.

Instead, Marshall said, "spreading out the traffic is desirable," and his study of 74 cities finds that cities with "good local street systems" have the least congestion. He said the next phase of his study will look at whether a Chester Street bridge, an I-30 boulevard and widening of arterials would achieve the congestion relief the highway department was seeking.

City Director B.J. Wyrick asked the most salient question: Wouldn't expanded arterials put the burden on the city, which lacks the dollars the highway department has? 

Marshall responded that highway dollars are more flexible than the department would have folks believe. He was referring to federal dollars; he said if the highway department could show that spending the dollars on arterials would achieve the same purpose, "the feds will let them do it."

The  highway department's response would be that the I-30 widening project will be funded by state sales tax dollars, not federal dollars, and that it is committed to using them to widen I-30. Still, the highway department could not operate without federal dollars; indeed, it is counting on them to help pay the total cost of the 30 Crossing project. Wyrick noted, not for the first time, that the highway department has maintained in the past that it could not fund other projects with federal dollars: specifically the South Loop, which was once proposed from Interstate 430 to Interstate  30 at 145th Street to better move traffic from Benton and Bryant north. 

The city's highway consultant, Nelson\Nygaard, is expected to make a short presentation to the board April 26 and attend the highway department's public meeting that night on its revisions to the 30 Crossing plan. Both Nelson\Nygaard and Marshall are expected to make May presentations as well.

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