Stop $631.7M work on I-30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, lawsuit says

This June 2016 file photo shows an aerial view of the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Work on the $631.7 million Interstate 30 corridor project through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock should immediately stop until a more comprehensive analysis of its impact on central Arkansas is performed, plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the project said in court filings Wednesday.

They said the injunction is necessary because any work now "might influence or prejudice the choice of alternatives or environmental impacts relative to the project, or irretrievably or irreversibly commit to a particular plan of action for the project, pending final hearing in this case," Richard Mays of Little Rock, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, wrote in a 158-page brief supporting the motion filed in U.S. District Court.

The environmental assessment supporting the 6.7-mile project between Interstate 530 in Little Rock and Interstate 40 in North Little Rock contains "many omissions and faults" that constitute violations of federal law governing transportation projects, including the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, he said.

"This is one of the most significant cases brought under NEPA in the State of Arkansas," Mays wrote. "It involves a large, costly and complicated project that raises many issues, some of which are largely without precedent. If constructed, the project will profoundly affect not only transportation, but many other aspects of the human environment, life and society in central Arkansas on a daily basis for many years.

"Plaintiffs contend that the Defendants' environmental assessment has not adequately considered those impacts, and that they are sufficiently important to merit a more in-depth, impartial and objective analysis in the form of an environmental impact statement."

Officials at the Arkansas Department of Transportation, which is one of the defendants in the lawsuit and has spent years overseeing the planning for the project, are aware of the motion but declined to comment, agency spokesman Danny Straessle said.

The I-30 corridor project, also called 30 Crossing, proposes to redesign and widen the corridor, including replacing the Arkansas River bridge and improving a part of I-40 in North Little Rock. The corridor involves four major interchanges and on/off ramps.

Wednesday's court filings are an outgrowth of a lawsuit over the project by a coalition of neighborhoods and residents filed May 20 and assigned to U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr.

The lawsuit challenges the manner in which the environmental assessment was conducted, the adequacy of the analysis required by federal law and the conclusion by the Federal Highway Administration that the environmental assessment shows the project will have no significant effects to the environment.

It also challenges whether the project can be modified by the contractor without requiring further environmental review based on the new scope of the work.

The team that was selected by the Arkansas Highway Commission to provide the final design and build 30 Crossing put the price tag on all of the work that officials wanted at nearly $1 billion.

Kiewit-Massman Constructors, a joint venture, said that with the money that the Transportation Department has available now for construction -- $535 million -- the scope of the work would be less than the agency had envisioned.

Working within the department budget, the team said it could replace the Interstate 30 bridge over the Arkansas River, improve the downtown interchanges on both sides of the river, add lanes on the bridge and its approaches, and do some other work.

State transportation officials said that, as a result, the project likely would be built in stages, with the most expensive and complicated aspects, including replacing the bridge, being done first. The department is working with the contractor to see what can be completed with the money available.

The project is the first the department has executed under the design-build construction method, in which a project is built with a set budget. Projects usually are designed first and then sent out for bids. The lowest, responsible bid is accepted.

The plaintiffs contend that allowing the contractor to modify the scope of the work based on funding available is an "illegal delegation of authority."

"Any decision of defendants to construct any portion of the 30 Crossing Project in future segments or sequential portions depending on the availability of funding would constitute a 'substantial change' in the proposed action from that proposed in the [environmental assessment], and would also constitute 'significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns,'" both of which would require additional environmental review, Mays wrote.

The environmental assessment, a 3,000-page document with 18 appendices, was biased in favor of the recommended alternative, which would widen the corridor to 10 lanes from four, he said.

"No consideration was given in the Environmental Assessment to the premise that it may be desirable to decrease traffic through downtown Little Rock-North Little Rock on I-30 by development of alternative routes of access to those downtown areas and development of alternative routes around the metropolitan area," according to the court filings. "A number of experts in highway design and traffic management recommended this approach in their comments to ArDOT."

Nor did the document adequately consider reducing the scale of modifications within the corridor or improve other arteries outside the corridor, he said.

"One assumption is the premise that the only acceptable route for traffic to and from or through central Little Rock is upon I-30, a premise that excludes other alternatives for achieving the goals of reducing drive time, increasing safety, etc.," Mays wrote. "Alternatives that would involve the expansion and improvement of existing state highways or streets in Little Rock and North Little Rock as major arteries into the downtown areas were rejected without serious consideration."

It also didn't analyze other alternatives, such as light rail or more robust bus service, as options, he said.

In fact, according to Mays, state and federal transportation officials "pre-determined" what the project scope would be and excluded serious consideration of other options.

His evidence included, among other items, state Transportation Department notification to the U.S. Coast Guard of the project, identifying its scope as 12 lanes well before the environmental assessment was completed and also before federal approval of the work.

The document also failed to address the project's indirect effects on minority and low-income residential areas and on the environment, according to May, who wrote that 33% of households in the project area are considered to be low-income and 59% of the population in the area are nonwhite and Hispanic.

"The [environmental assessment] discusses a few benefits that it claims the largely minority, low-income citizens in those areas will derive from the 30 Corridor Project (such as sidewalks and bike paths, over or under I-30), but it fails to discuss the disadvantages that those same citizens will sustain by being further separated from the main bodies of Little Rock and North Little Rock by an even wider and more complicated I-30 Corridor and its intersection with I-630, to say nothing of increased noise and toxic fumes as a result of the projected increased traffic," Mays said.

He also faulted the environmental assessment for not analyzing the effects on adjoining interstates, including Interstate 630 and I-30 outside the project area, a move Mays said was done to avoid complying with federal law.

An analysis by Metroplan, the long-range transportation planning agency for central Arkansas, showed that the project would shift congestion away from the downtown area, requiring additional widening on surrounding interstates at a cost of $4 billion.

"ArDOT and FHWA have attempted to isolate the 30 Corridor Project into a separate segment in an attempt to avoid determining the environmental impacts of resolving the traffic problems that will be created or be exacerbated in other connecting segments," Mays said. "NEPA does not allow agencies to subdivide projects that do not have independent utility or logical termini simply to expedite the NEPA process or avoid addressing environmental impacts."

The memorandum supporting the injunction request said that the mitigation proposed for the filling of about 18 acres of wetland in the area of the I-30/I-40 interchange likely will worsen flooding in the Dark Hollow area of North Little Rock.

The environmental assessment also failed to adequately analyze the noise and air quality impacts the project poses to adjoining parks, including MacArthur Park and publicly owned land at the Clinton Presidential Center and the River Market area of Little Rock and the Riverside Park area of North Little Rock.

Failing all of that, Mays called the environmental assessment document "overly complicated, poorly organized and misleading."

"It does not pass the 'readability test' ... and, at a minimum, it should be remanded to the defendants for rewriting," he said.

Metro on 07/04/2019