Public hearing on I-30 project goes over old ground

A public hearing Wednesday night was a rehash of familiar arguments for and against the $630 million project to upgrade and widen the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.

The hearing, held at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College main campus in North Little Rock, was called to gather comments on a proposed amendment to the long-range transportation plan for central Arkansas. The current plan, which covers 20 years, never took into consideration the overhaul of the congested corridor that the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department is proposing.

The amendment would replace the phrase "operational improvements" with "capacity improvements" in the plan's description of the project, which regional planning officials say would include "major widening."

The amendment to the long-range transportation plan is required to allow federal money to be spent on the I-30 project, which is also called 30 Crossing.

Two alternatives being evaluated would widen the corridor from six lanes to eight or 10 lanes largely between Interstate 530 in Little Rock and Interstate 40 in North Little Rock, as well as upgrade the interchanges and replace the bridge over the Arkansas River.

Two dozen people, many of them veterans of the planning meetings and hearings held on the project over the past two years, spoke about the amendment. Most were against it.

"We had comments from the full range, the gamut, of considerations and it was exactly what you expect and hope for in a public hearing," said Tab Townsell, executive director of Metroplan, the federally designated metropolitan planning organization for central Arkansas.

He attributed Wednesday evening's "smallish" crowd of about 50 people to a change of venue and rainy weather.

The hearing was a rare one convened by the Metroplan board, and was separate and independent of the hearings the Highway Department has held on the project. Metroplan's board consists of many of the mayors and county judges in central Arkansas.

"The board members have a lot to choose from as they weigh the various considerations," Townsell said.

Seven of the roughly two dozen board members -- including Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, who arrived 25 minutes late -- were present for the meeting.

Among the first in the audience to speak was Kathy Wells, president of the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, who has long opposed the construction project as too big and too expensive. She also contends that the Metroplan board members are relying on too little information on which to base their decision.

She and others say it would be prudent to wait until the environmental assessment of the corridor project is completed later this year. The assessment will evaluate the potential impact -- negative and positive -- the project would have on the surrounding commercial and residential districts in the corridor. It will assess mobility, congestion and safety as well as air quality, noise and historical sites, among others things.

"Defer this action until you get all the needed information," Wells said.

In remarks before the meeting began, Townsell and other agency officials said that while the amendment is needed to move the project forward, Wednesday's meeting wouldn't be the last opportunity to weigh in on how the project is fashioned or whether it goes forward.

Comment also will be taken on the project's environmental assessment and on the project's inclusion in the region's transportation improvement plan. Federal transportation officials also will have to approve the project's final plans.

Several people who spoke against the amendment were members of Metroplan's Regional Planning Advisory Council, a broad-based citizens group heavily involved in developing the region's long-range transportation plan. The plan's latest incarnation is called Imagine Central Arkansas.

The council's membership largely opposes the project because it goes against much of the constraints to road development contained in the plan. The council voted against a recommendation to the board to exempt the project from the regionwide policy limiting freeways to six lanes. The Metroplan board, however, voted for the exemption.

That led more than one speaker to wonder if the meeting was an exercise in futility.

"Amending the Imagine Central Arkansas plan is an additional stake in the heart of public trust," said speaker Cary Tyson. "Many citizens committed countless hours contributing to the plan in good faith. We believed the process to be inclusive and honest.

"To disregard the efforts of the citizenry is flagrant, disrespectful and only exacerbates an already broken system. How can we expect people to get involved in their community when their involvement is so promptly dismissed?"

But Jay Chesshir, president and chief executive officer of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, one of a handful of business leaders who spoke for the amendment, said changing circumstances can require another evaluation of the original plan.

"Having been a part of many of the planning processes for the previous plans, I recognize a plan is just that, something that we all take a look at, hopefully all have input in and hopefully come up with what we think are the best solutions given that moment in time.

"Yet if you go back to 2011, when we began to look at the issue with the bridge, we also recognized at that time this wasn't just a Little Rock and North Little Rock issue, that this was a regional mobility issue."

He noted that the last time he saw the figures, more than 100,000 people who live outside Pulaski County worked in the county.

"We realized to have a vibrant regional economy, we had to have regional mobility," Chesshir said

The chamber, which represents about 2,000 businesses, has endorsed the project.

NW News on 05/19/2017

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