Susan Chambers, "Induced demand"
The board of directors of Metroplan
voted today to approve an amendment
to its long-range transportation plan to allow the state highway department to widen Interstate 30
in downtown Little Rock. The highway department still needs to weed through environmental assessments and chose a contractor, but the amendment's passage jumps a bureaucratic hurdle in what has become an acrimonious discussion over the widening of I-30.
The environmental study is scheduled to be completed by early 2018
. If there are findings of significant environmental impact, there will be more environmental
analysis conducted, but it will not necessarily halt the project.
While the amendment was supported by the Metroplan
staff, it was harshly criticized in public meetings. Out of 118 public comments on the amendment, only seven spoke favorably of the amendment. The environmental impact study will require another public meeting. The Regional Planning Advisory Council, which advises Metroplan, also voted 10 to 8 to not support the amendment.
"We're headed down the path of a major widening of an interstate highway that cuts through the middle of our most populous area," said Jarod Varner, executive director of Rock City Metro, and the sole member of the Metroplan board to vote against the amendment. "It's going to lead our cities to design for cars and not people."
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola was the only other member of the board to speak on the amendment, which he defended at length, saying he had to be "pragmatic" while dealing with the "many, many competing issues."
"If we could do this all over again, the highway probably wouldn't be where it is now," he said. "I've got to analyze this in this in terms of, 'Is what we are moving towards better than what we've got now?'"
"I think we've got some opportunities here," Stodola said.
But, there has been a growing disagreement between RPAC — which has repeatedly questioned the expansion of I-30 — and the Metroplan board. Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton, a member of RPAC, told the board the "democratic process is something more and more people expect to be a part of." She advised them, while not voicing either approval or disapproval of the amendment, that the opinions of the community and RPAC should not "merely [exist] to check off a federally required box."
"It's very important that the process be
inclusive of the fact that there are citizens in the community who care about this and who want to have a voice in this who are not in the Chamber of Commerce and the business community," she told me. "That's a very important acknowledgment: We hear you, we see you, you matter, even though we're making this decision."
Stodola said the fact that so many did weigh in proves that the process was inclusive, even if the decision was to pass the amendment. The amendment does not mean major widening is a certainty, Stodola said. "[It] doesn't preclude some later decision that's a no-go," he said. "There are still many other issues that have to be tackled."