Rush-hour relief

Highway improvements set to ease traffic, increase safety

As one of the highest traveled corridors in the state, Interstate 30 is undergoing continued improvements to accommodate capacity and make travel time more efficient, especially through Saline County.
As one of the highest traveled corridors in the state, Interstate 30 is undergoing continued improvements to accommodate capacity and make travel time more efficient, especially through Saline County.

Frequent travelers to and from Little Rock who live in Saline County or farther southwest in Malvern or Hot Springs might find a welcome change in the newly expanded Interstate 430/Interstate 30 interchange. In the coming months and year, motorists can expect more changes to help ease traffic flow in the area.

About 10 years ago, A major overhaul on the I-30 stretch from the Pulaski-Saline county line to the U.S. 70 exit took place to accommodate the increasing flow of traffic through the corridor, said

Danny Straessle, public information officer for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.

The forthcoming projects are a continuation of the I-30 widening that took place a decade ago, Straessle said. In the first half of this year, motorists can expect to see two projects take place.

The first includes the widening of I-30 to three lanes on either side in Benton between Sevier Street and the U.S. 70 interchange.

“It shouldn’t impact traffic because we’ll widen to the median there,” Straessle said, adding that lane shifts are expected beginning in the first half of this year.

“There is a lot of traffic through that area, and enough of the traffic during the commute goes into the Hot Springs area on U.S. 70” to warrant the expansions, he said.

U.S. 70 has about 17,000 vehicles travel on it every day, Straessle said, on the stretch from I-30 to Hot Springs. The I-30 stretch through Saline County has about 70,000 to 90,000 vehicles, with the number increasing through Bryant.

“These two expansions will help add capacity and ease traffic flow,” Straessle said.

The second project will widen the stretch of U.S. 70 beginning at the I-30 interchange to Hot Springs to five lanes — four lanes with a turning lane in the middle. “The geometry of the road will be changed,” Straessle said, to support higher speeds. He said the speed limit is set to increase to 60 mph.

“U.S. 70 is considered a rural highway but is heavily traveled,” Straessle said. “We’ve been planning for some time to widen it. There have been a number of fatalities on that road, but that’s not the reason for the expansion.”

After careful study and consideration, Straessle said, it was found that conditions of the highway did not contribute to the fatality accidents.

“Nothing changed on the highway; the pavement friction was what it should be. Accidents happened for various reasons — distracted driving, driving under the influence, sleep deprivation. It had nothing to do with the highway.”

The reason the project can go forth in the coming months is the availability of funds, Straessle said.

“This expansion is not in response to accidents. A lot of it has to do with having the money to do it. As part of the Connecting Arkansas Program, in which voters

approved a .5-cent sales tax in 2012, there is a $1.3 billion funding program across the state.”

Last fall, the I-430/I-30 interchange expansion was completed. The three lanes of 430 used to drop down to two at Stagecoach. The renovation continued the lane to help “drain traffic off 430,” Straessle said.

The first part of the project included relocating the Otter Creek exit from I-30 to before the interchange with I-430 occurs. That exit also serves as the exit for the Bass Pro Shops and the Outlets of Little Rock.

Straessle noted that the exit change and lane expansion were in the works, regardless of the outlet mall.

“It’s something we’ve been eyeing for a long time,” he said.

A concern Straessle and highway officials often hear, he said, is why these types of road improvements can’t happen all at once.

“They wonder, ‘Why start there and not here?’ All highways have to work together because one impacts the traffic of another. It’s all about increasing capacity and safety, making room for everyone and reducing the chances for accidents as an area continues to grow. We have to have a well-choreographed plan to make it happen, and that takes time.”

As the AHTD looks to the future, it is partnering with Metroplan on a high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) toll-lane study. According to its website, Metroplan seeks to plan for growth in central Arkansas. Metroplan’s goal is to ensure that changes taking place are beneficial to the economic health, growth and vibrancy of the region. The organization serves to provide a regional forum for problem management and acting on opportunities.

Casey Covington, planning director for Metroplan, said the study is expected to kick off sometime in the latter part of this year.

“It won’t impact existing roadways but will help us discover, if we continue to add roadways, what kind of roadways are appropriate and how a new lane is utilized,” he said. “It will help Metroplan and AHTD make decisions about future projects and further development of our state’s transportation system.”

The study will look at highly traveled corridors, such as I-30, Straessle said. It will look at the feasibility of having a toll lane, like an HOV lane in bigger cities such as Dallas. The lane would most likely be in effect only during rush hour or commute times, from about 6-8:30 a.m. and 3:30-6 p.m., he said.

“The study will look at which freeways could accommodate something like that and what the costs would be in adding such a new lane, what a toll system would look like and how it would function here,” he said.

Straessle added that studies like these provide another tool for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to achieve its everyday mission — to help reduce congestion and improve travel times.

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