The $631.7 million project to remake the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock has gotten a green light from the Federal Highway Administration.
The decision came after an independent evaluation of the Arkansas Department of Transportation's environmental assessment of the project determined that it "adequately and accurately" discussed the "environmental issues and impacts of the proposed project," according to a letter dated Feb. 26 from Angel Correa, the head of the Federal Highway Administration's Arkansas division.
A more exhaustive, expensive and time-consuming environmental review, called an environmental impact statement, is unnecessary, he said.
"You may proceed to final design of the selected alternative," Correa wrote.
Meanwhile, the state Transportation Department expects to execute an agreement this week with the contractors -- a joint venture of Kiewit Infrastructure South of Fort Worth and Massman Construction Co. of Kansas City, Mo. -- and then begin to refine the scope of the project to fit within the $630.7 million budget, a process that will take about four months, said Ben Browning, a senior agency executive.
The joint venture pegged the cost for the entire project at slightly less than $1 billion. Refining involves the joint venture working with state transportation officials to decide what can be built now as part of what is now a first phase.
The 6.7-mile project corridor extends from Interstate 530 in Little Rock to Interstate 40 in North Little Rock, including the Arkansas River bridge. The project scope also includes the section of I-40 between I-30 and U.S. 67/167 in North Little Rock.
Under a revised project scope, Browning said the bridge will be replaced, while work to eliminate the traffic weaving on the I-40 section and a new interchange south of the bridge in Little Rock also remain top priorities.
Unlikely to be a part of the first phase is widening a section of I-30 between I-40 and the bridge
The project, often called 30 Crossing, is the first the department has undertaken using the design-build method of construction.
Typically, a project is designed and then the plans are reviewed by contractors, who submit a bid on what they said it will cost to build the project. The lowest bidder is awarded the project.
Under the design-build method, the department identifies how much money it can spend on a project, has some preliminary design work done and then works with contractors who can complete the design and build the project at the same time to save time and wring other efficiencies from the project.
Project planning began five years ago to ease congestion and improve safety in the corridor, where six major highways come together in fewer than 7 miles. The I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River, built for $5 million, dates to the 1950s and carries 124,000 vehicles daily on its six lanes.
Under the preferred alternative route selected as a result of the environmental review, the project scope included widening to 10 lanes the section of I-30 between Interstate 530 in Little Rock and Interstate 40 in North Little Rock, replace the I-30 bridge and make some improvements to I-40 between I-30 and U.S. 67/167 in North Little Rock.
The 10 lanes include six through lanes that the section has now and four additional lanes for local traffic between Little Rock and North Little Rock.
The project also will eliminate the partial cloverleaf interchange at Cantrell Road, which is now used to funnel traffic to and from downtown Little Rock, and replace it with a split diamond interchange.
Under the preferred alternative, I-30 will have continuous frontage roads between East Fourth Street and Interstate 630 and make some changes to Little Rock streets, including widening East Second Street to four lanes and re-striping East Fourth to three lanes.
The project is facing one legal challenge and may face another now that federal officials have approved it.
Earlier this month, Pulaski County Judge Alice Gray rejected a request for a preliminary injunction that state highway officials said would have immediately halted work on an ongoing construction project on Interstate 630 and the planned job on I-30.
The request came in a lawsuit that said a "plain reading" of Amendment 91, which governs much of the money spent on those and other projects in the $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas program, limits the funding of improvements to four-lane highways or two-lane highways being widened to four lanes.
A 2.2-mile section of I-630 is being widened to eight lanes from four in an $87.4 million project that began last summer and is scheduled to be completed early next year.
A final hearing is scheduled for April 4.
Opponents of 30 Crossing have previously said they would challenge federal approval of the project. They have argued that the project required the environmental impact statement and not a lesser environmental assessment. State transportation officials have maintained that their environmental assessment has been as rigorous as an environmental impact statement.
Richard Mays, an attorney representing some critics of the project, declined comment Tuesday.
Barry Haas, a community activist who opposes the project, said he assumed a lawsuit would be filed, but he also didn't want to comment until he had read the Federal Highway Administration decision.
Metro on 03/27/2019