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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — The Interstate 30 bridge over the Arkansas River is shown in this 2014 file photo. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

An Arkansas River crossing that began as a ferry service helping remove tens of thousands of American Indians over 10 years in the 19th century is on the cusp of a $631.7 million construction project that will allow it to carry tens of thousands of modern commuters a day well into the 21st century.

The 30 Crossing project to remake the 6.7-mile Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, which includes replacing the bridge over the river, is the subject of a final hearing today in a planning and development process that began four years ago.

"We can see the end at least from what we're required to do," said Tom Schueck, a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission from Little Rock. "It's kind of exciting to get that done."

The hearing is required as part of a 45-day public review of the project's environmental assessment, a 3,992-page document that provides justification for the project. Critics, with an eye toward litigation, say they will review it particularly closely.

Jointly sponsored by the state Transportation Department, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the hearing will be held 4 to 7 p.m. in the Silver City rooms of the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel at 2 Riverfront Place in downtown North Little Rock.

More than 20 people already have submitted comments since the comment period opened June 2, according to Danny Straessle, the department spokesman.

The 30 Crossing website has recorded more than 1,300 page views. The website's page devoted to the environmental review has had more than 500 page views.

Regional transportation planners have longed for improving the congested corridor, which features the convergence of six major highways in the space of fewer than 7 miles. The I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River dates from the late 1950s. Built at a cost of $5.5 million, it now carries 124,000 vehicles daily.

State transportation officials said they planned to improve the corridor based on its traditional funding model in which they paid for improvements incrementally when the money was available.

That thinking changed in 2012 when voters approved a temporary half-percent state sales tax, in place for 10 years beginning in 2013. It is tied to a $1.8 billion road construction program focusing on regionally significant projects, including 30 Crossing.

That gave state transportation officials the opportunity to make the improvements all at once. As a result, 30 Crossing will be the single largest project the Transportation Department has undertaken.

The recommended alternative produced as a result of the environmental review would widen the 6.7-mile corridor from Interstate 530 in Little Rock to Interstate 40 in North Little Rock to 10 lanes from six and replace the bridge over the Arkansas River.

The latest design for the 10-lane alternative features four lanes that would be more like city streets, with ramps to lower speeds, narrower lanes, traffic signals and other features that officials say will allow traffic moving on or off I-30 to safely interact with pedestrians and other non-interstate traffic.

The 10-lane alternative has been referred to as a mix of six main through lanes with four collector-distributor lanes. The latter are separated by a wall from the main lanes, have slower speeds and allow traffic traveling between Little Rock and North Little Rock to cross the bridge without entering the main interstate lanes.

The project also includes improvements to the section of I-40 between MacArthur Drive and U.S. 67/167 in North Little Rock and a new interchange in Little Rock to replace the one at Cantrell Road and I-30. Removal of the Cantrell/I-30 interchange would create what city officials envision as a 17-acre park.

It will be a far cry from the first river crossing in the area. The Little Rock from which the state capital takes its name was the low point in the river that American Indians and early European explorers used to cross the Arkansas River.

That and the convergence of other geographical features gave Arkansas a central role in the eventual forced relocation of American Indians from the eastern United States to live in what is now Oklahoma, often called the Trail of Tears removal corridors.

The corridors included the military road between Little Rock and Memphis built in 1828, the river, the Southwest Trail and the military road to Fort Smith. Little Rock was an important juncture for all those routes.

A ferry operated in Little Rock as early as 1832, which coincides with Rock Street. Another ferry site was at Ferry Street, which now ends before it reaches the river. At that point, it is in the shadow of the Interstate 30 river bridge.

"As a locus of removal corridors, central Arkansas witnessed the passage of more than 40,000 tribal people traveling to Indian Territory," according to environmental review's cultural resources survey. The ferry was eventually acquired by William Woodruff, the first publisher of the Arkansas Gazette.

The survey documented no structures in the I-30 corridor study area associated with the Trail of Tears nor any archaeological sites associated with the period.

The review period will continue for another two weeks after today's hearing. At that point, the department will compile and respond to all of the comments and submit them to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. That will allow the department to select a contractor to complete the design and build the project within the $630.7 million budget.

Construction is scheduled to begin early next year. It is scheduled to be completed in 2023.

"Needless to say it's taking a lot longer than we really wanted it to, but I believe we've done everything we could possibly do to do everything correctly and transparently and involving the community," North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith said. "I'm really proud of what the Highway Department has been able to do.

"I think they've done it the right way, and I believe the Federal Highway [Administration] will agree with that."

Scott Bennett, the department director, said the environmental review was completed with an eye toward potential litigation.

"There likely will be a legal challenge," he said Wednesday. "One of the things that we have done in the review process so far with the Federal Highway Administration is have all of the documents reviewed for legal sufficiency and they have passed the test from [the Federal Highway Administration's] standpoint as far as legal sufficiently, and that's basically the review about whether the process we have gone through would stand up to a challenge in court."

Richard Mays, a veteran environmental lawyer who is with the Little Rock law firm of Williams & Anderson, said Wednesday that he represents a "a number of people and organizations who are interested in the potential effects of the expansion of the I-30."

"There's a lot of interest in this on the part of a lot of people who think this is probably not the best idea in the world," he said. "I think you will probably be seeing quite a bit of activity in that area."

Mays, who has filed Arkansas Freedom of Information Act requests with the department and with North Little Rock, said he and members of the group plan to submit comments on the environmental assessment.

As for potential litigation, "I suppose it depends on the response, if any, the agencies make to those comments and the reaction they have," he said.

Tom Fennell, a Little Rock architect who has been a chief critic of the project, dismissed the environmental assessment document as a way to justify what the department wanted when it began the project four years ago.

"They started with a plan four years ago to widen the freeway so many lanes," he said.

"They had an idea of how they wanted to do it, and they really haven't changed. This process has been an extremely expensive effort to post-rationalize what they decided four years ago."

Metro on 07/12/2018

Print Headline: Final hearing today as I-30 project gets closer to start

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  • Abouttime
    July 12, 2018 at 7:09 a.m.

    So about 1/3rd of the $1.8 billion road construction program that all Arkansans pay for regionally significant projects is being spent on the 30 Crossing?

  • RBBrittain
    July 12, 2018 at 8:07 a.m.

    @Abouttime: Not all the funding for 30 Crossing is coming from the sales tax. Still, a significant chunk of the sales tax money was intended for 30 Crossing from the beginning; it IS "regionally significant" because I-30 downtown is used by people going between several parts of LR and ALL parts of the state, especially Central Arkansas communities north of the river as close as NLR, Sherwood & Jacksonville. It's NOT the "tunnel to Cabot" its detractors claim it to be.

  • RBBrittain
    July 12, 2018 at 8:29 a.m.

    Guys like Tom Fennell are the ones wasting taxpayers' money by forcing ARDOT to evaluate a hare-brained "boulevard" idea that WILL NOT WORK in this location. They even twisted MY past comments here on Pine Bluff's Martha Mitchell "Expressway" into a justification for their idea, when in fact it proves why you DO NOT build a boulevard (essentially what Martha Mitchell is, why I always put "Expressway" in quotes) where a freeway is needed. To NLR, Sherwood & Jacksonville, "30 Crossing" doesn't JUST mean I-30; it means "shoulda been done 30 years ago!"
    Where they SHOULD be fighting ARDOT (and NLR) is over Riverfront Drive, where their illegal scheme to give a state highway to the city (in direct violation of ARDOT statutes), sell part of its right-of-way to developers, and close two of its four lanes for parking PREVENTS the potential use of Riverfront to divert *both* NLR Broadway traffic away from Argenta *and* Cantrell/LaHarpe traffic away from the River Market. THAT is the true equivalent of the Portland, Ore. I-5 project Fennell keeps citing (NOT a boulevard, but also unworkable on I-30).

  • theaverageman
    July 12, 2018 at 9:38 a.m.

    I'm all for improvements for I-30 such as replacing the bridge and improving the interchanges, but what I'm not for is making it 10 lanes. If commuting was such a problem why not look at alternative routes or other methods of transportation like completing the North Belt freeway, building a new bridge somewhere upstream or a commuter transit(bus rapid or rail). It's a shame that ARDOT wasted nearly all the half cent sales tax money that was supposed to go toward FOUR lane highways and improving FOUR lane highways but instead wasted the majority of that money on this when majority of people I spoke to don't want 10 lanes. The people who voted for this half cent sales tax 6 years ago should be outraged right now because ARDOT bamboozled the voters.

  • Abouttime
    July 12, 2018 at 12:24 p.m.

    See, @matrodmorganyahoocom,some see this as just one example of our state government’s notorious reputation for bait & switch. They tell us one thing but do something entirely different. (Thank you, Jon Woods!) And still they clamor, “we need more money, more money" to maintain 16,000 miles – or whatever – of roads! It’s our pitiful, corrupt state government working at its finest!

  • RBBrittain
    July 12, 2018 at 2:58 p.m.

    First, as I said before 30 Crossing was included in the sales tax proposal from the get-go; if you didn't realize it was in there, you weren't paying attention. Second, it's NOT about "what the people want" in ONE person's narrow circle (almost certainly limited to certain LR neighborhoods); it's about the NEEDS of the people AS A WHOLE. I bet if you asked the people of NLR, Sherwood & Jacksonville (not to mention Cabot), they would almost ALL be in favor of 30 Crossing because they LIVE with I-30 traffic jams daily!

  • theaverageman
    July 12, 2018 at 4:55 p.m.

    @RBBrittain the sales tax proposal never said it would be 10 lanes though, it said improvements to I-30 which it does need some but it doesn't need that many lanes for such a small city and it is about what the people want not just from little rock but all over the state. I know some people outside of little rock don't even like the proposal because it's too much. ARDOT is always bitching and moaning about how broke they are and I can see why now. Adding a bunch a lanes will only help in the short term not long term because it will only bring in more traffic, plus it will mean adding more lanes to connecting interstates just by looking at this proposal. Now I'm not in favor of freeways into boulevards, but I'm not in favor of adding a bunch of lanes just for peak hour traffic when we could be looking at other options other than forcing a bunch of people onto one road. One last thing, some of the projects from this CAP program ended up being delayed due to lack of funding but yet this is not one of them which brings me to some suspicion of how our tax dollars is being handled.