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story.lead_photo.caption 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)

The Arkansas Department of Transportation took a step toward ensuring that all of 30 Crossing will be built, as long as voters agree and the agency fends off litigation seeking to halt the project.

The agency has formally asked Metroplan, the long-range transportation planning agency for Central Arkansas, to add $350 million to the project to remake the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.

That would bring to $981.7 million the total that the department has committed to 30 Crossing. The department originally identified $631.7 million available for the project, including $535 million available for construction.

But the team that the agency selected to do the final design and build the project -- Kiewit-Massman Constructors, a joint venture -- put the price for all the work at nearly $1 billion.

At that point, the department said the project would have to be built in phases.

The department's request for the additional $350 million will allow for all of the project to be built. Whether it's built in phases or all at once remains uncertain, according to Randy Ort, the assistant chief for administration at the agency.

The department's request to have the $350 million available is a matter of timing to allow the money to be spent under the contract with the Kiewit-Massman joint venture.

"That's why there's a little time sensitivity to it so we could put this in the existing contract and not have to start that process over," Ort said. "I'm not saying there might be a Phase 2 and a Phase 3. That gets into scheduling. It's one thing to appropriate and have the money, but then when you schedule the work, that's when you actually piece it out."

Earlier this year, the department won a stay in a lawsuit seeking to stop the project until a more rigorous review of the its impact can be conducted.

The pause in the lawsuit would allow the department to update the federally approved environmental assessment for the project. That process is ongoing, Ort said.

The project, the planning of which began six years ago, is the most expensive that the department has undertaken.

It focuses on improving the congested corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, an area that features the convergence of six major roadways in the space of less than 7 miles.

The project includes the I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River, which dates to the late 1950s and was built at a cost of $5.5 million. About 124,000 vehicles a day use the six-lane bridge. It will still be replaced under the proposed new scope for the project.

Replacing the bridge remains the "centerpiece" of the project, according to department officials.

The corridor extends from Interstate 530 in Little Rock to Interstate 40 in North Little Rock.

The design calls for widening selected sections to 10 lanes and includes four lanes that would be more like city streets, with ramps to lower speeds as well as 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 design has been referred to as a mix of six main through lanes, which is what the thoroughfare has now, and four collector-distributor lanes. The latter would be separated by a wall from the main lanes, would have slower speeds and would allow traffic traveling between Little Rock and North Little Rock to cross the bridge without entering the main interstate lanes.

The additional money will be available if voters approve Issue 1, which is a proposal on the Nov. 3 general election ballot to make permanent a half-percent statewide sales tax devoted to road work. In 2012, voters approved the tax for 10 years.

Officials said in June that the $350 million for 30 Crossing would be part of $3.6 billion that could be set aside to advance or complete capital and congestion-relief projects over 20 years if Issue 1 is approved.

The request to amend the transportation improvement plan is intended to allow that work to take place. Without the amendment, the department is limited to spending $631.7 million on the project.

"The thought process is if Issue 1 passes, we will do that work with that revenue from Issue 1, but it is more than Metroplan authorized or allowed," Ort said. "If it all passes in November, we will be ready to move forward. The bottom line is you can only spend it if you can have it."

Scott Bennett, who was director of the Transportation Department until his retirement this month, made the request in a March 16 letter to Metroplan.

"If the people support Issue 1 and vote to make the [half-percent] sales tax a permanent revenue source for highways, county roads and city streets, the department plans to immediately allocate an additional $350 million to complete the 30 Crossing project as originally planned," Bennett said.

Metroplan is taking public comments on the proposed amendment through April 20.

Written comments can be submitted to the CARTS Study Director, Metroplan, 501 W. Markham St., Suite B, Little Rock, Ark. 72211. Comments also may be faxed to (501) 372-8060 or emailed to comments@metroplan.org. More information can be found by calling Metroplan at (501) 372-3300.

Casey Covington, the planning agency's deputy director, said he expects the Metroplan board of directors to approve the amendment at its April meeting and doesn't expect the staff to offer comments.

"It is consistent with the Metroplan board's previous approval of the entire project and therefore supported by staff," he said.

The agency staff also said in a background memo on the amendment that voter approval of road construction financing initiatives in 2011 and 2012 supported amending the plan even though Issue 1 has not gone before voters yet.

Discussions among the staffs of Metroplan, the state Transportation Department and the Federal Highway Administration "led to the determination that due to the prior success of the state regarding tax proposals for highways that the increased revenue from Issue 1 could be 'reasonably expected to be available,'" according to the memo.

Richard Mays, a Little Rock attorney who specializes in environmental law and represents a coalition of Little Rock neighborhoods in the vicinity of I-30, sued the department last May in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit said the environmental review supporting the project was so flawed that it should be delayed until a more rigorous review that meets federal requirements is performed.

In giving the project the green light in March 2019, the head of the Federal Highway Administration's Arkansas Division at the time, Angel Correa, who is named as a defendant, said the environmental-impact statement was unnecessary.

"It seems to be that they're really exposed to getting beat on Issue 1 because of the fact they spent a hell of a lot of that money they've already collected on expanding interstates in Pulaski County," Mays said. "This is just another example of it. That's not my problem. It's theirs."

A Section on 03/30/2020

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