The time for regional leaders to reach key decisions on the scope of the Interstate 30 corridor project is fast approaching, the top official at Metroplan says.
Tab Townsell, executive director of the long-range transportation planning agency for central Arkansas, said an amendment to the region's long-range transportation plan outlining the scope of the project likely will go to the agency's board next month. The board is composed of the region's mayors and county judges.
An arm of the agency called the Regional Planning Advisory Council will also have an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed amendment, but its recommendation won't be binding on the board.
The scope of the 6.7-mile project must be part of the region's long-range transportation plan, called Imagine Central Arkansas, before the Federal Highway Administration can approve the project.
The decisions are the first of several potential milestones the project will reach before the end of the year, up to and possibly including final approval by the federal agency, Townsell said.
Another looming decision that must be made later this year by Metroplan and the council is whether to add the project to the region's transportation improvement plan, another requirement for federal approval of the project.
"Things are going to start transpiring rather quickly," he told about 20 council members at a meeting last week.
The project, known as 30 Crossing, centers on a series of improvements on the I-30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. The 6.7-mile project stretches from Interstate 530 north to Interstate 40. The project also includes a small section of I-40 in North Little Rock between John F. Kennedy Boulevard and U.S. 67/167 and the bridge over the Arkansas River, which is in line for replacement under the project.
The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has identified $630.7 million in state and federal money that it can devote to the 30 Crossing project.
The Metroplan board already has granted the project a waiver from its regionwide policy limiting area freeways to six lanes. The department has envisioned widening the section to eight lanes or 10 lanes. In the latter scenario, the project would incorporate six through lanes, which exist now, and four lanes segregated for local traffic crossing the Arkansas River.
The project has received endorsements from a range of downtown interests, including the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Little Rock Downtown Partnership and the Clinton Presidential Center.
But the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods and other activists have opposed the project. Members of the Regional Planning Advisory Council also have resisted the project. The council voted against granting the project a waiver from the six-lane limit.
A Facebook page called Improve 30Crossing has attracted more than 1,600 members.
The council began discussions on the proposed amendment to the plan last week.
At issue is what impact 30 Crossing will have on other parts of the freeway system, especially I-30 west to 65th Street in Little Rock, I-40 in North Little Rock and Interstate 630 in Little Rock. Preliminary traffic modeling shows increases in traffic for those areas to the point where improvements would have to be made, according to agency officials.
Department officials associated with the project would prefer to limit the wording of the amendment to "major widening" on the 6.7-mile project. They also say some of increased traffic on other parts of the system shown in the traffic modeling likely reflects higher volume that would occur whether or not the 30 Crossing is completed.
Project critics argue that the amendment must reflect the impact of the project on the overall system, which might make it more difficult to reconcile the project with the overall long-range transportation plan. Projects can be listed in the plan only if money is identified to pay for the projects.
Townsell said the Metroplan staff expects to see the updated traffic modeling soon and will use it to help craft a draft amendment for the council and the board to consider at their meetings next month.
The draft amendment is expected to go out for public comment in May before the board considers final approval in June.
"In one sense, if we are going to do the 30 project it is a simple plan amendment that says major widening," Townsell said. "Where it gets more complicated is we, as Metroplan, are charged with looking at systemwide impact for each and every project.
"So if there are other add-ons that we must consider because of this project, do we include them, how do we include them, is there money to include them or a willingness to provide the money to include them?"
Patrick Stair, who is the Sierra Club representative on the council, echoed a continuing concern throughout the council's deliberations on the project, saying the amendment wording shouldn't be considered until the final project scope is available.
That won't come until after the environmental assessment is completed this fall. The environmental assessment documents the need for the project; assesses alternatives, the impact of the project and its effect on the environment; and lists people included in the assessment.
The assessment could require a more in-depth analysis, called an environmental impact statement, or determine that the project will have no significant impact.
"It's nice to have these discussions, but I don't think we're ready to vote on it," Stair said.
The council chairman, Charles Cummings, agreed.
"Why do we need the amendment to the plan now and not wait until we get all the data," he said. "That concerns me."
But Ben Browning, the Highway Department's design/build director who is helping oversee 30 Crossing, said the amendment language should have been developed much earlier in the process.
"The amendment typically happens in the planning phase," he said. "We're late in the game."
Casey Covington, the deputy director for Metroplan, agreed, saying the amendment must be approved before the environmental assessment is completed.
Metro on 03/19/2017
Print Headline: Clock ticking on resolving I-30 job scope