Metroplan panel OKs AHTD funding, but not 30 Crossing | Arkansas Blog

Metroplan panel OKs AHTD funding, but not 30 Crossing

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Members of the Regional Planning Advisory Committee (RPAC) of Metroplan struggled mightily today to show their opposition to 30 Crossing plans to widen I-30 as they debated an amendment to their long-range transportation plan that would raise its 2016-2020 funding constraints from $323.8 million by another $300 million for interstate rehabilitation. 

The Connecting Arkansas Program, which is funding the 30 Crossing widening project over 7 miles of I-30, originally budgeted $300 million in tax funds, plus another $23.8 million in federal funds, for 30 Crossing. The budget now is $631.7 million, which includes $100 million in "gap financing," from job contractors. 

The TIP long-range plan is "financially constrained," which means it must reflect what Metroplan projects as actual resources available to achieve planning goals. It must mirror the state's plan (STIP) for federal approval.

RPAC was not voting on an amendment to the long-range plan (known as Imagine Central Arkansas, but officially the Central Arkansas Regional Transportation Study Transportation Improvement Plan) that would lift the maximum highway lane cap from six lanes to allow for the widening of I-30. Metroplan will also have to make that amendment if the 30 Crossing is to proceed, but it was not at issue today.  

The members finally voted, 21 to 4 with one abstention, to recommend approval of the amendment to the plan, "with the clear  understanding" by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department and the Federal Highway Administration "that the 30 Crossing project will come back before the MPO [the Metroplan board] for approval before it can move to construction."

There was a motion to recommend that the TIP be approved without an increase in funding for 30 Crossing, but representatives from the highway department said that if the STIP and TIP aren't identical, the state would have to eliminate inconsistent language, including funding for Central Arkansas highway improvements, until 2020, when the next STIP will be considered.

Antonio Johnson, a transportation planner with the AHTD, told committee members that they weren't voting on the scope of the project — which, with the exception of three or four members, the committee opposes — but on the pot of money to be spent in Central Arkansas.

The Metroplan Board will vote on the TIP at its meeting next Wednesday. The highway commission will meet to approve the STIP next month. 

Jared Varner, director of Rock Region Metro, and Patrick Stair of the Sierra Club asked if the state plan could be amended to mirror the TIP's lower financial numbers, but Metroplan Executive Director Jim McKenzie told them, "now you're talking about politics." The AHTD Connecting Arkansas Program funds derive from a voter-approved amendment to the state Constitution to improve the state's transportation system, including 30 Crossing.

Sybil Hampton, a Little Rock member of RPAC, expressed disbelief that the $631 million budget contained in the STIP for the 30 Crossing project does not reflect what the state thinks the widening will cost. She called the AHTD position that the budget came first rather than the engineering and design "doublespeak" and made her "nervous."

But McKenzie said the highway department, in using a design-build approach, had "scraped together" all the funds it could find not allocated to other projects and will ask contractors to tell them what they can build for that amount of money, plus $100 million in contractor-financed loans. The design-build method allows for flexibility and can save money, McKenzie said, though he also said he "understood" Hampton's position, that he suspected the highway department was "nervous" as well. The project, the largest ever undertaken in Arkansas, is also the first to be a design-build project.

The highway department says it expects to spend 3.5 percent of the project cost every year to maintain the seven-mile stretch of I-30 that it wants to expand, another financial burden that gave the committee pause. Coreen Frasier, who represents the Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas, said, "I don't think we can afford" 30 Crossing.

Little Rock representative Brad Walker wondered if Metroplan could direct the AHTD to spend some of the $631 million on building a Chester Street bridge. McKenzie said no; it can only approve the figure, not how the highway department spends it.

Each committee members was asked to say where they stood and what they needed to make a decision. Tom Sutton, who represents the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, said he had not seen an I-30 plan he could support, and he could not support spending the amount of money required, plus maintenance, to achieve a "4/10ths of a mile per hour increase" in speed for commuters.

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