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story.lead_photo.caption Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - 10-13-2015 - Artist rendering of the Interstate 30 interchange serving downtown Little Rock as it would look after a proposed widening of the interstate through the downtown area..

Little Rock City Directors Ken Richardson and Gene Fortson view the $600 million Interstate 30 corridor project through the same lens but from different angles.

Both say they want more information and look forward to hearing from Scott Bennett, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department director, who will give a presentation to Richardson, Fortson and the other directors Tuesday night.

"I don't think I have enough information," Richardson said. "I think we need to look at the facts and all the information critical for our board to take a position on it."

"I am willing to listen," Fortson said. "I want to hear what they have to say."

Both board members also said they have doubts about aspects of the project, which illustrate the divergent worries the wider community increasingly has about the project.

Richardson cites feedback from constituents who oppose the project because it will make it easier for people to work in Little Rock but live outside the city and, in essence, "subsidize the development" of those outlying communities.

Fortson, by contrast, thinks the project will make it easier for people to come to Little Rock.

"That entire [corridor] needs to be modernized," he said.

But he isn't entirely sold on it, either.

"I have some concerns based on what I've read," Fortson said.

Bennett and Jerry Holder, a consulting engineer with Garver LLC and program manager for the state's $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program, of which the I-30 corridor is a part, will make the presentation to the city board members on Tuesday night.

The board meeting was moved back an hour from its regular 6 p.m. start. The meeting will then shift from City Hall to the grand hall at the Clinton Presidential Center at 7 p.m. for the I-30 presentation because, according to a city statement, "of the anticipated need for more space to accommodate the general public."

Bennett asked to make the presentation last week to address what he said was "some confusion in the public dialogue about a number of the project's proposed elements."

The department has proposed a series of improvements in the 6.7-mile corridor, which is bounded south of the Arkansas River by Interstate 530 and north of the river by Interstate 40. The project boundaries also include a section of I-40 between Arkansas 107 and U.S. 67/167 in North Little Rock.

Chief among the proposed improvements is replacing the bridge over the Arkansas River. It was built 50 years ago, carries 125,000 vehicles daily and, according to barge operators, has long posed a hazard to navigation on the river. Bennett first publicly announced the possibility of replacing the bridge in December 2011.

The initial formal planning for the project began more than a year ago when the first plans for the project were brought to the public and various stakeholders along the corridor.

That process culminated this past summer with a recommendation that the corridor would be widened up to five lanes in each direction on parts of it.

It also initially eliminated an interchange at Curtis Sykes Drive in North Little Rock, which provoked protests from the predominantly black neighborhoods and business district on Curtis Sykes east of the interstate.

Little Rock city leaders expressed concern about the amount of traffic a widened I-30 would attract between the LaHarpe Boulevard interchange and LaHarpe. Thousands of cars daily now go through the intersection of Cumberland Street and East Markham Street, which is part of the popular River Market downtown entertainment district.

Engineers associated with the project went to work on both issues.

A series of meetings with community leaders, state lawmakers and North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith produced a compromise for Curtis Sykes. Among other things, the engineers added an eastbound off-ramp from I-30 to Curtis Sykes, but the eastbound on-ramp remained eliminated.

To address the LaHarpe interchange concerns, through traffic between the interchange and LaHarpe was eliminated. It eliminated one issue but unlike the Curtis Sykes compromise, it created other issues.

Traffic coming off the interstate would instead be routed down Second Street for about nine blocks to State, where it would continue west on LaHarpe and Cantrell Road. Traffic coming east on Cantrell and LaHarpe would turn onto Chester and then onto Fourth to access the interstate.

The newly configured LaHarpe interchange also would require the relocation or elimination of the Rock Region Metro streetcar line on the east side of the interstate, which serves an area that includes the Clinton Presidential Library and Heifer International.

Rock Region Metro, the Downtown Little Rock Partnership and Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, among others, protested the latest plans.

Little Rock Director Kathy Webb said that she will file a resolution calling for the city board to oppose the project unless the project was changed.

Bennett rejected calls for a moratorium on planning, but his agency did extend the public comment period for the latest design. He and engineers have insisted nothing is final yet, suggesting that they want to work through the issues.

"It is important to the department to continue the conversation with the public and stakeholders about the 30 Crossing project's facts," he said in requesting to make Tuesday's presentation.

But Bennett and project engineers are going to have to persuade people such as Richardson and others who are anxious about the project and its impact on the city.

"I haven't heard the rationale for the project, quite honestly," Richardson said. "If the pros outweigh the cons, I could support it."

A Section on 11/02/2015

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Print Headline: Public meeting on I-30 Tuesday: board to review plan for corridor

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