Thursday, June 23, 2016

AHTD asks Metroplan to lift six-lane freeway cap

Posted By on Thu, Jun 23, 2016 at 1:36 PM

click to enlarge "Induced Demand," painting on wood panel by Susan - Chambers, on exhibit at New Deal/Gallery Studios.
  • "Induced Demand," painting on wood panel by Susan Chambers, on exhibit at New Deal/Gallery Studios.

In a letter dated June 17, the state highway department finally made its formal request to Metroplan that the Central Arkansas planning agency lift its six-lane cap on freeways, a request long anticipated to allow the widening of Interstate 30. Highway department Director Scott Bennett asked that the Metroplan board act on the request at its June 29 board meeting.

That won't be possible, however, the board has informed the state highway department. Consideration of the request should take four months, Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher wrote June 22 to Bennett.

Unless Metroplan amends its Imagine Central Arkansas plan, the highway department can't go forward with its plans to widen the interstate from  six to 10 lanes (and more, depending on auxiliary lanes) through downtown North Little Rock and Little Rock. 

"Ten days lead time is insufficient to do that in time for the June Board meeting consistent with our adopted planning and public involvement procedures," Fletcher wrote Bennett. "I am referring your request immediately to the Metroplan staff and the RPAC [Regional Planning Advisory Council] so that they can begin work on it. ... I believe Mr. [Jim] McKenzie [the Metroplan director] has previously provided you a time estimate for the plan amendment/TIP process to take approximately four months from the time the draft Environmental Assessment was completed and urged you to incorporate such a window into the project timeline, which I assume you have done."

The mayor said the board would "make every effort" to act promptly on items that must be decided before a FONSI (finding of no significant impact) can be issued by the Federal Highway Administration. Those items include Metroplan's policy on the freeway through lanes and the amendments to Imagine Central Arkansas and Metroplan's Transportation Improvement Plan.

You can read Bennett's letter here. Read Mayor Fletcher's letter here.
The state's transportation plan (the STIP) and Metroplan's TIP are in agreement on funding for Central Arkansas road expenditures. So all projects are a go, with the exception of 30 Crossing, which is the name the agency has given to the widening project. In addition to the change to lift the six-lane cap, project descriptions will have to be amended to add widening to approved operational improvements and reconstruction. The highway department has not yet made that request of Metroplan, nor does it appear in its own STIP.

Highway department engineer Ben Browning said a draft of the project's Environmental Assessment should be complete by fall, and the Federal Highway Administration could issue the FONSI early next year. The highway department is "still on schedule to have the design builder on board by the end of 2017," Browning said. The agency will release a draft of the request for qualifications so potential applicants can get an idea of what's to come, Browning said.

Browning said the highway department understands that "there is a process" that Metroplan has to follow. The letter from Bennett, he said, was just to "start the process." Browning added that the agency is still going through all the comments it received from the public on the widening of I-30 and should be able to release the summary in the next couple of weeks.

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