A persistent concern of the nice people who read this column is the volume of traffic on Interstate 40 from North Little Rock to Memphis. Also the nature of that traffic -- a rushing river of big rigs.
It makes a guy in a car feel like a Lilliputian in a forest of Brobdingnagians.
Fortunately, we recently had the opportunity to ask a few I-40 questions of Randy Ort, deputy director and chief operating officer of the Arkansas Department of Transportation.
His emailed answers are slightly edited.
How far back goes the planning of a widening of NLR/West Memphis I-40?
The idea of a widened I-40 goes back many, many years. We did a study just a few years ago when the federal government was toying with the idea of allowing some existing interstates to become toll roads if they were improved. That's when we developed the estimated cost of nearly $800 million to widen the entire length.
Next time you drive it, notice that as we replace bridges on that route, the new bridges are wide enough to accommodate three lanes in each direction. We're planning for the future. It's not really a question of if it ever gets widened, it's more a question of when it gets widened. But the availability of funding dictates that timing.
Is the planned or proposed widening contingent on the passing this November of Issue 1, which would make permanent a temporary half-cent sales tax for highway work?
It's not contingent on the passage of Issue 1. But Issue 1 will provide additional funding that can speed the process. If Issue 1 doesn't pass, we'll keep making improvements as we have been doing -- replacing narrow bridges with wider bridges, addressing congestion a little at a time, etc. If Issue 1 does pass, we won't be able to go out and widen it all at once, but we'll be able to dedicate $475 million to the widening. We can't make that promise if it fails.
How detailed right now is the planning?
No specific design or schedules have been developed. Remember, even if Issue 1 passes this November, we won't have the freedom to start using those funds until mid-2023. Revenue from the half-cent sales tax is dedicated to other projects (the Connecting Arkansas Program) until that time.
Is there consideration for tolls, either on the widened sections or any other part of I-40 NLR/West Memphis?
Not at this time. Federal regulations don't allow tolling on interstates. Before your readers start to chime in, there are interstates in some parts of the country that are toll roads, but they were existing toll roads first that were later brought into the interstate system.
If the voters approve Issue 1 in November, when would the first I-40 project start, and where?
Don't know at this time. We will need to look at existing traffic volumes, truck percentages, and pavement and bridge conditions.