The public has until Friday, July 27, to comment on the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s 3,992-page Environmental Assessment of the impact of its plan to widen Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. At that point, the department will respond to the comments and submit them to the Federal Highway Administration in hope of getting a FONSI — finding of no significant impact — so it can begin the $360.7 million project to turn the six-lane interstate into 10 lanes (or more at some points in its 7-mile length). The Federal Highway Administration could, instead, order the highway department to complete a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement. At any rate, the highway department expects to hear from the FHWA by mid-August. If the FHWA approves the EA and no one sues seeking to force an EIS, a design-build contract would be let and construction would begin in 2019 and be complete by 2023.
The highway department maintains that I-30 needs to be widened to lessen the traffic at rush hours and reduce crashes. The project, referred to as 30 Crossing, includes replacing the I-30 bridge, which was built in the 1950s.
The report, which can be found on ARDOT’s Connecting Arkansas Program webpage, says its “preferred option” — it considered several, though anything short of widening the highway to 10 lanes was never supported by ARDOT — is to add four “collector-distributer” lanes to direct traffic on and off of I-30’s six “through lanes” via “split diamond” intersections. That would move the on-off ramps now located between Second and Third streets to Fourth Street.
The “preferred design” — called the “6-Lane with C/D with SDI” — has changed since the highway department held public hearings last year. It now includes a four-lane Second Street from Cumberland Street to Mahlon Martin Street as a “relief” road. Second would bisect the green space conceived under the previous design and supported by Mayor Mark Stodola.
With the on-off ramps at Fourth under the split diamond design, persons wishing to go downtown or to Highway 10 could turn right on Fourth, on a new westbound third lane; take the Texas U-turn from the C/D lane under the interstate to Third Street and take a left; or take the frontage road to Capitol Avenue (which would not be the best way to Highway 10).
The report says the preferred design would require the following 10 modifications in downtown Little Rock:
• Fourth, now an eastbound one-way, two-lane street, would become three lanes between Cumberland Street and the collector-distributer lanes emptying southbound traffic into Little Rock. One lane would be westbound and two would be east bound. That would require the removal of 29 on-street parking spaces.
• A “Texas U-turn,” a one-way U-shaped lane, would be added to allow traffic on the southbound I-30 off-ramp to direct traffic onto Third.
• Mahlon Martin would be widened and converted from a one-way roadway to a two-way, four-lane roadway.
• Second would be widened between Cumberland Street and Mahlon Martin to provide two lanes eastbound and two lanes westbound. Six on-street parking spaces along Second and 12 on-street parking spaces along Ferry Street would be removed.
• A new road would be constructed between Third and Fourth streets east of I-30 to connect Collins Street with Mahlon Martin. The new road would bisect Little Rock Newspapers Inc. warehouse property.
• Cumberland between Second and Third would be widened to provide two lanes in both the northbound and southbound directions. Project director Ben Browning said the widening would not affect the Historic Arkansas Museum property on the block, but would take out the traffic island on Cumberland.
• Traffic signals may be required at the intersections of Second with River Market Avenue, Sherman Street and Mahlon Martin; Third with River Market Avenue, the Texas U-turn and Mahlon Martin; Fourth with River Market and Rock Street; and Capitol Avenue and the frontage road emptying southbound traffic from I-30.
The project will also require filling 28.6 acre-feet (28.6 acres one-foot deep) of wetlands, 11.2 acre-feet in Fourche Creek and 17.4 acre-feet in the Dark Hollow floodplain. The highway department would mitigate the fill by building ponds at the I-40/I-30 interchange and in other areas.
The report said the preferred design would “improve mobility on I-30 and I-40 in the design year 2041 by improving travel speed and travel time over both the No-Action Alternative and the 8-lane General Purpose Alternatives.” The highway department sought to reject the eight-lane plan outright, but was instructed by the FHWA to include it in its analysis. In the report, the highway department claims the eight-lane alternative would create a bottleneck on Interstate 40.
However, Metroplan, the federally mandated planner for Central Arkansas, said the 10-lane plan would create bottlenecks at every juncture with the other interstates I-30 intersects — 40, 630, 440 and 530 — because of what’s known as induced demand, the increased traffic that wider highways attract. Metroplan said to handle the induced demand and remove the bottlenecks would require an investment of $4 billion in highway construction in the Little Rock/North Little Rock metro area. Nevertheless, the members of the Metroplan board, including Stodola and North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith, approved planning changes that would allow 30 Crossing to move forward.
The plan also says the split diamond design “would provide an added benefit to pedestrians by the addition of sidewalks along both sides of 2nd St. from Cumberland St. to Mahlon Martin St. as well as a safer pedestrian crossing at President Clinton Ave. and LaHarpe Blvd.” and that the bicycle and pedestrian “accommodations would mitigate and minimize the adverse impacts resulting from the proposed project.”
Asked about the latter mitigation claim, Browning responded by email that “The project does not introduce any new physical barriers to pedestrian and bicycle movements. However, the project does provide some improvements for these modes. The improvements are not extreme because this is an interstate project and pedestrians and bicyclists are prohibited from using an interstate facility … . The improvements are focused primarily in the opening up of the area under the interstate between President Clinton and 3rd Street, improved sidewalks and bike lanes on the 6th and 9th street overpasses, reconstructed sidewalk throughout the project, and new traffic lights that provide for protected pedestrian movements.”
The 30 Crossing project is part of ARDOT’s $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program, funded by a 10-year, half-cent sales tax. That tax expires in 2023.
In an editorial in Talk Business and Politics, Highway Commissioner Alec Farmer talked about the need for more funds to maintain the road improvements built under the Connecting Arkansas Program. “When the CAP funding ends the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) will be left with only regular annual highway funding, and herein lies the problem for our highway system going forward,” Farmer wrote. “Due to several factors, including more fuel-efficient vehicles, no highway user fee since 2001 and construction costs growing by more than 150 percent during the last 20 years, our annual funding now only provides enough revenue to maintain about half (or 8,000 miles) of our entire 16,400-mile state highway system … .”
Farmer said without new money, options would include “converting selected highways into gravel roads, reducing the level of design, and requiring capital improvement projects to include local funding.”