I was having a phone chat a few weeks ago with the state highway director, Scott Bennett, on the theories and tendencies of contemporary vehicular transportation in Greater Little Rock.
We were talking about the imminent destruction of Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.
The purpose is to rebuild the freeway more widely, replace the river bridge and overhaul the entrance and exit infrastructure for downtown Little Rock. The current exit configuration is a 1950s model, substandard by modern regulation because of the closeness of the ramps.
When a homeowner remodels this substantially, he moves out. But Little Rock can't move out. It must stay where it is and try to percolate economically amid the five to six years of mayhem.
I had a question for Bennett about prevailing traffic patterns as they now exist in the metropolitan area.
Let's say I want to get from the Hillcrest section of Little Rock to McCain Mall in North Little Rock.
I'm figuring I'll take Interstate 630, then Interstate 30, then a few yards of a merged Interstate 40, then the freeway-styled U.S. 67/167. An all-freeway local trip, in other words.
Was that the route he'd take?
He said probably, for time and convenience.
There are other routes, but they're stop-and-go. I could drive downtown, cross a bridge at Main, and meander through downtown North Little Rock. I'm trying to think of all the stoplights on that route. I'm up to a couple of dozen, and I'm not finished.
It is much more efficient to use the federal interstate system, unless, of course, it's 8 a.m. or 5 p.m., the unhappy hours. That's when these freeways are bottle-necked, providing a traffic problem that justifies--supposedly--this massive project.
I had a broader point, as does state Rep. Warwick Sabin of Little Rock, who is on record maintaining an interest in running for mayor of the city in 2018.
He believes Little Rock can be a refuge for new-idea progressivism--as in, for example, transportation policy.
The point is that the interstate highway system was intended for pass-through traffic--thus the name--and not local traffic. It's that Central Arkansas lacks viable convenient alternatives to the interstate highways, either by public transportation or major non-freeway arterials. It's that it's not healthy for a city's main street to be an interstate highway built mainly for people passing through at a high rate of speed.
Here is my example of a different idea, one about which, let me emphasize, I'm only dreaming: I'd drive from Hillcrest to Chester Street, take a Chester Street bridge over the river to an improved parkway through North Little Rock, generally along the Pike Avenue route, I guess, that would deliver me to Interstate 40 and a short hop to McCain Mall, or Burns Park, or any of various destinations.
It's a longtime staple of Arkansas politics that we love new and bigger roads, meaning any new and bigger roads, and that politicians can best endear themselves to voters by delivering those new and bigger roads, and that economic development flows by making it easier to get from one rural outpost to another.
That's why Sabin's public statement last week, providing a real-life example of his theory that Little Rock can be a haven for different and progressive thought, was remarkable.
He said that of course we should attend to the bridge if it is substandard. But he said the widening and reworking of the full 6.7 miles of I-30 between the north and south interchanges would disrupt and imperil commerce in Little Rock, where the downtown revitalization efforts have been noble and somewhat successful.
And all we'd get in the end for our trouble, Sabin said, would be the inevitable cyclical failure of inertia.
Sabin said Interstate 30 would become jammed again in due time, owing to the new convenience, because cars follow the best roads. And, he said, we would further isolate the neglected section of town east of the freeway, thus dividing even more starkly a tragically divided city.
So for the first time in my memory, an elected official has implored the state Highway Department not to do for his constituency the only thing it knows to do, which is build a bigger road on whatever right-of-way it has left on its existing system.
Instead Sabin called on the state and the affected communities to work on more forward-thinking solutions. He means other major routes, mass transit, ride-sharing and generally changed habits.
Most likely nothing will stop the Highway Department. We passed in 2012 a half-cent sales tax for bonds for a publicly disseminated list of committed uses, one of which was this Interstate 30 project.
But even Bennett acknowledged in our phone conversation that the next generation's solution would need to be something different.
So why not try something generational now?
John Brummett's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 10/25/2015
Print Headline: Generational change