*CORRECTION: The Metroplan board of directors will consider Nov. 29 whether to amend the agency’s transportation improvement program to describe the work to rebuild the Interstate 30 corridor in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. The Arkansas Department of Transportation has said the description needs to be the same used in Imagine Central Arkansas, which is Metroplan’s long-range transportation plan. This article didn’t make a clear enough distinction between the two documents.
A dust-up over two words to describe the 30 Crossing project is delaying nearly $232 million in road construction projects in central Arkansas.
Tab Townsell, the executive director of Metroplan, the long-range transportation planning agency for the region, informed board members in a letter Tuesday that until the board replaces "operational improvements" with "capacity improvements" in the region's transportation improvement plan, the Arkansas Department of Transportation said federal regulations don't permit it to fund highway projects in the region.
The board voted in June to describe the scope of the work involved in the project to remake the I-30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock as "capacity improvements" instead of "operational improvements" in its long-range transportation planning document called Imagine Central Arkansas, which establishes the region's transportation priorities over the next 20 years.
The priorities include not only roadways, but transit and bicycle and pedestrian friendly options as well. The change in wording came at the department's request.
In August, the department asked the Metroplan board to replace "operational improvements" with "capacity improvements" in the region's transportation improvement plan, which is a document that lists all the road construction and bicycle and pedestrian projects that will be undertaken in central Arkansas over the next five years.
Under federal regulations, language in the region's long-range plan -- in this case, Imagine Central Arkansas -- must be identical to the region's transportation improvement plan in order for federal money to be spent.
So far the move has caused four projects in the region to be pulled from the state Transportation Department lists of projects going to bid Wednesday.
They include one state project, the installation of a traffic signal on U.S. 64 at Sunny Gap Road in Faulkner County, at an estimated cost of $200,000.
The other projects that won't be in Wednesday's bid-letting include rehabilitating the Old River Bridge in Saline County at an estimated cost of $1.6 million and the Little Rock Zoo Trails project, which is estimated to cost $480,000.
Eleven major state projects worth nearly $232 million are at risk of delay through the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2018, until the inconsistencies are eliminated.
They include a project to widen Interstate 630 from Baptist Health Medical Center to South University Avenue at an estimated cost of $59.7 million. It was scheduled to be awarded a contract in February, but it would be put off to as late as June, depending on when the inconsistencies are eliminated.
The projects could be awarded contracts in January at the earliest if the board of directors for Metroplan corrects the inconsistencies at its meeting on Nov. 29.
Townsell told board members in the letter that the issue will be on the agenda for the meeting for the board to "determine how it will proceed in light of ArDOT's decision to hold projects."
In the letter, Townsell labeled the language inconsistency as a "minor technicality" that doesn't "rise to a level that requires holding other projects," a conclusion he said his agency staff reached after discussing it with officials at the Arkansas division of the Federal Highway Administration.
At one point, state highway officials had argued that "operational improvements" could include "capacity improvements," Townsell said in the letter.
But Scott Bennett, the state Department of Transportation director, said in an interview that he stands by his interpretation of the federal regulations, which came after he consulted with federal highway officials in Washington, D.C.
"The TIP [regional transportation improvement plan] is not compliant," Bennett said. "It affects everything in the plan, not just 30 Crossing. From my standpoint, I can't pick and choose which federal regulations I follow and which ones I don't.
"We're just going to have to delay the projects until we get the two documents to match."
Local federal highway officials referred questions to a spokesman for the agency in Washington, D.C., who didn't respond to an email late Wednesday afternoon.
The 1-30 project, the state's largest infrastructure project, will redesign and rebuild the congested 6.7-mile route largely between Interstate 530 in Little Rock and Interstate 40 in North Little Rock and replace the I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River.
Local officials have been reluctant to commit to the new language until they have been assured the project will be designed and built the way they would like to see it built. They also are sensitive to critics who oppose the eight or 10 lanes the corridor would have under department scenarios. The corridor is largely a six-lane thoroughfare now.
"Capacity improvements" allow for adding lanes while "operational improvements" wouldn't necessarily include additional lanes and instead limit the scope of the project to replace the bridge, improve the interchanges and put down a new surface.
The controversy over the documents' wording comes as state highway officials are working to complete an environmental assessment on the 30 Crossing project. The assessment is a document addressing environmental concerns associated with the project.
Environmental assessments are less rigorous than an environmental impact statement, but department officials have said they have been developing the assessment as if it were an impact statement, which means that if the federal government concludes an impact statement is warranted, it wouldn't require a huge delay or cost to complete.
A draft environmental assessment is expected to be ready for federal review as soon as this month. Once the draft receives federal approval, it is expected to be available for public review, including a public hearing, sometime between December and February, he said.
Metro on 11/09/2017
Print Headline: Snag in wording halts $232M in road work