Interesting tidbit from the weekly posting of the Little Rock City Board agenda: A resolution to commit $3.8 million in city spending to mitigate the impact of the controversial Interstate 30 expansion project, whose design is now uncertain. After my inquiry, it appears there’ll be at least a delay in consideration of the resolution.
The meeting agenda posted yesterday afternoon initially included a resolution authorizing a memorandum of understanding between the mayor and city manager and the Arkansas Department of Transportation on work the city would undertake to mitigate the impact of the 30 Crossing widening project. 30
The City shall be responsible for all of the following costs necessary to implement the requirements of this Agreement:
1) Planting of trees in excess of the maximum number to be provided by the Department as designated in Attachment B.
2) Bridge width and elements listed in Attachment B for the 6th and 9th 1 Street overpasses that are beyond what the Department would typically provide at Department expense.
3) Costs associated with providing a smooth bottom effect to bridge superstructures.
4) Pedestrian scaled lighting on the frontage roads in areas where lighting does not currently exist or in areas not included in the specifications for safety as developed by the Design-Builder.
5) The cost to upgrade lighting beyond the requirements included in the Technical Provisions.
6) Any other elements not currently contemplated and requested by the City.
The Department estimates that the cost of the elements to be funded by the City is Three Million, Eight Hundred Thousand Dollars ($3,800,000) and the City will only be required to pay actual costs incurred.
This drew my attention for several reasons. First, it’s evidence of what critics of the project have said — that the state won’t pay for ways to lessen the impact of the project (and these aesthetic improvements are likely minor compared to problems the city will face in dealing with a new flow of traffic on the city grid from different entrance/exit alignments. as well as induced new traffic demand on connecting freeways.)
The bigger immediate issue is that the City Board was preparing to vote on an assist to a project that is in dramatic flux because of a shortage of state money. A project initially estimated to cost $325 million is now estimated at $1 billion and the state only has about $535 million. As a consequence, the state has said the project can’t be built from the outset as envisioned in designs that have been through months of discussion and review. A new Arkansas River bridge and approaches will be built. But big stretches of the corridor cannot be improved immediately. What shape will the project take? What becomes of the lower-speed “collector” lanes promised along the stretch to diminish the high-speed freeway feel? What of new exits and interchange improvements? What of talks of new parkland possibilities? At this moment, we just don’t know. The state says it will attempt to do the originally envisioned work in stages as additional money develops. This is a big if with state highway money a subject of some intense interest and uncertainty at the state Capitol currently.
I asked Richard Mays, attorney for citizens working to find alternatives to the proposed wider concrete swath through town, about the proposal for the city to commit to the $3.8 million
The City would be crazy to enter into this contract, especially before the exact scope of the project is established. ArDOT is scrambling around to find money to help fund parts of it since ArDOT only has about half of what it needs.
Though the department has authorized planning to begin on the work, an environmental review has not been completed and there remains the chance of a lawsuit to demand a more extensive environmental impact statement before work begins. The fact that the current environmental assessment is based on a project design that now seems unlikely to be built is another issue.
I wrote City Manager Bruce Moore about these issues last night. He said he’d been away from work for family health issues and hadn’t been aware the memorandum had been placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. He said he’d get back to me after further review. I checked this morning and the resolution no longer appears on the list of items to be discussed Tuesday afternoon. This is just a meeting to set an agenda for the meeting the following week, so the resolution wouldn’t have been up for final action Tuesday in any case.
A delay, if I’m reading the change in agenda correctly, seems like a good idea. This issue deserves plenty of public notice and comment. Some further city discussion about other costs from this project would be beneficial, too.
Lawyer Mays said:
The I-30 project is to [state highway director] Scott Bennett what the Border Wall is to Trump: something we don’t need and can’t afford but something he can put his name on. I-30 may need some improvement that probably could be done with available funds, but widening to 8 or 10 lanes to accommodate rush hour traffic isn’t worth the additional money we don’t have.
Some city residents share that view, but the City Board has endorsed the project, if not unanimously. It also has the endorsement of Mayor Frank Scott Jr., a former member of the state Highway Commission, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and others.