The state's top highway official Thursday rejected a request for a moratorium on planning associated with the Interstate 30 corridor rebuilding project.
The Downtown Little Rock Partnership on Tuesday sought a 120-day moratorium as anxiety rose over the latest plan to upgrade the 6.7-mile corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock and the project's effect on downtown Little Rock development and traffic patterns.
The project includes replacing the bridge over the Arkansas River and widening the corridor to up to 10 lanes in places from the six lanes now. An eight-lane alternative also is being considered.
The corridor, which stretches from Interstate 530 to Interstate 40, includes a section of I-40 to U.S. 67/167. The project has an estimated price tag of $600 million and is the centerpiece of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's $1.2 billion Connecting Arkansas Program. That program aims to use proceeds from a half-percentage-point increase in the statewide sales tax for 10 years to upgrade major corridors in the state.
The corridor and the I-30 bridge, which carries 125,000 vehicles daily, were built 50 years ago.
Scott Bennett, director of the Highway and Transportation Department, said extending the time for public comment -- something the department announced earlier this week -- is "more appropriate" than a moratorium. The original deadline for comment was Nov. 6. It now is Dec. 6.
"A key part of the planning process is to receive, evaluate and address comments and concerns, and continue to refine alternatives based on these comments and concerns," Bennett said in a letter Thursday to Gabe Holmstrom, the Downtown Little Rock Partnership director. "With a moratorium on the planning process, we could not continue this coordination, addressing comments and refining alternatives."
He noted that since the first meeting on the I-30 project was held in May of 2014, the agency and its engineering consultants have held about 100 meetings with elected officials, stakeholders, community interest groups and the broader public, including one Thursday.
Bennett also said that refining the alternatives on the basis of concerns and comments it has received has been a "continual process" since the planning for the project began.
Thursday's meeting was with downtown business leaders and others, arranged by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. A focus was on the latest proposal to reroute traffic through what is commonly known as the LaHarpe Boulevard interchange, which serves downtown Little Rock.
In the first stage of the planning process for the corridor, which was completed in July, the proposed design raised concern from city officials and others that it would draw too much traffic to the intersection at Cumberland Street and East Markham Street/President Clinton Avenue.
The intersection is used for traffic traveling between LaHarpe Boulevard, also called Arkansas 10, and the interstate to and from points west of downtown, such as the Riverdale area. About 16,000 vehicles per day travel on LaHarpe near its intersection with Cumberland and East Markham/President Clinton, according to 2014 state highway estimates.
But the intersection also abuts the capital city's popular River Market entertainment district and attracts a large number of pedestrians. Metroplan, the long-range transportation planning agency for central Arkansas, has labeled it one of the most dangerous intersections for pedestrians in a four-county region.
The engineers were asked to develop an alternative, which was among the project refinements presented at a public meeting in North Little Rock that drew more than 400 people last week.
Traffic no longer would be routed between LaHarpe and Cumberland.
The latest proposed interchange configuration would direct the traffic from the interstate along East Second Street, which would be widened to three lanes by eliminating street parking and shifting the Rock Region Metro streetcar line into what now is reserved for street parking. Traffic would flow west on Second Street through several traffic lights to Chester Street and north to LaHarpe.
Traffic moving from the west would be routed to Fourth Street from Chester Street and onto the interstate.
The newly configured interchange also would require eliminating or relocating the Rock Region Metro streetcar spur that serves an area on the east side of the interstate that includes the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International.
A third option would be to further tweak the interchange design to avoid a conflict with the streetcar spur.
Second and Fourth streets would become state highways under that scenario. LaHarpe would be dropped from the state system.
The newest configuration has raised concern about how the traffic pattern would affect commuters and downtown businesses. The Stephens Inc. building and the Pulaski County Courthouse are among buildings along Second Street, for example. The concern has prompted a broader discussion of what a widened interstate would mean for the communities on both sides of it.
Holmstrom said his organization, which called for the moratorium, is willing to give highway officials the benefit of the doubt in advance of another briefing on the project Tuesday before the Little Rock Board of Directors.
"We understand the resistance to the proposed moratorium, but we are pleased the Highway Department has agreed to extend the public comment period," Holmstrom said in a statement. "While there is still a lot of disagreement surrounding particular aspects of the project, there is currently a lot of energy being dedicated to finding a solution that works for our city.
"We also recognize the significance of the investment the Highway Department is making in central Arkansas, and we look forward to continuing with this process and to hearing their presentation on Tuesday at the city board meeting."
Jay Chesshir, the chamber's president and chief executive officer, expressed hope Thursday evening that the wider community will be able "to talk through" the issues and come up with a "solution that everyone can put their arms around, support and move forward."
Metro on 10/30/2015
Print Headline: Won't stop I-30 project planning, highway exec says