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Back to the future

Widening? Reconstruction? Light rail?

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I-630 will have to be expanded, eventually.
  • I-630 will have to be expanded, eventually.

Though its name is synonymous with strength, concrete has a lifespan. And with some sections of I-630 now more than 40 years old, the end of that life is coming soon. Add to that concerns like the need to widen the freeway to allow for more traffic, built-in "chokepoints" where structures like Mount Holly Cemetery make widening difficult or just not feasible, and the cost of it all, and you can see that I-630 may well become a headache of Biblical proportions in coming years.

Jim McKenzie is the executive director of Metroplan, which has been the Greater Little Rock area's primary planning organization since 1972. "Infrastructure lasts a long time but it doesn't last indefinitely," McKenzie said. "630 is our newest freeway, but have you noticed the pavement condition on it recently? Drive over the Fair Park bridge, which was dedicated in 1965, and look at how the concrete is broken up. Typically, roadway designers design pavement for a 20-year life. At some point before it turns 50, that whole road is going to have to be reconstructed and a lot of the bridges and overpasses along it are going to have to be dealt with."

When the time comes for I-630 to get an overhaul, the question of capacity will have to be addressed. McKenzie said that all the current traffic models show that I-630 needs to be widened to at least eight lanes between downtown and University Avenue to meet demand. But there's a problem.

"You've got plenty of right-of-way on the western side. When it gets east of University you get really right-of-way constrained pretty quickly," he said. "You've got a couple of choke points. One used to be Ray Winder field, but you're not going to be taking center field if you widen it now. The really tight part is by the state Capitol and Children's Hospital. All of the structures above [I-630], especially on the east end, don't have room to expand, so you'd have to reconstruct all of them. Ultimately that needs to happen." To address capacity issues, Metroplan recently commissioned a study to look at the feasibility of building a light rail system along the freeway corridor, with stops at all the major institutions along I-630, including Children's Hospital, the Capitol and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. "It would be the ideal first application, running from the West Little Rock commercial area all the way through downtown to the airport," he said. "You're going to hit all the hospitals, which are 24/7/365 institutions, state government [agencies], and then the airport." McKenzie said the trains would be higher capacity and higher speed than the current Central Arkansas Transit System trolley cars. "That's not to say there's any money in the foreseeable future to build something like that," McKenzie said. "But given the institutional presence and growth in the corridor, and the need to widen 630, we wanted to identify where the stations needed to be and the connections. ... It would be right to be the first deployment for rapid transit in the metropolitan area." The study should be completed next year.

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