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Majority: Red-light 30 Crossing

But ARDOT's project to widen the interstate is preordained, some believe.

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CHECKING OUT ARDOT'S DESIGN FOR 30 CROSSING: During the public comment period on the highway department's Environmental Assessment of the plan to widen I-30, ARDOT held an event in North Little Rock to illustrate the project with "roll maps" and videos.
  • CHECKING OUT ARDOT'S DESIGN FOR 30 CROSSING: During the public comment period on the highway department's Environmental Assessment of the plan to widen I-30, ARDOT held an event in North Little Rock to illustrate the project with "roll maps" and videos.

Public comment on the Arkansas Department of Transportation's draft Environmental Assessment of its planned widening of Interstate 30 to 10 lanes (and more in places) produced 1,092 pages of documents and roughly 65 percent nays to 35 percent yeas.

People in opposition to the $631.7 million project described ARDOT's plan as "dismal," "boondoggle," "monstrous," "ridiculous," "overdesigned," a "colossal mistake" and "idiotic," and accused the department of "egregious steamrolling."

On the other side of the coin — where proponents made use of three versions of boilerplate (long, shorter and short) — the project was described in less colorful language, as "increasing vehicular safety" and providing "better pedestrian connectivity."

Supporters of the highway widening, which would move the exit into Little Rock from the current cloverleaf south of Second Street to Fourth Street, showed a surprising interest into the cloverleaf's unwanted "incentive" to draw people downtown. Their boilerplate read: "Removing this interchange will also shift traffic patterns since, without direct access to Highway 10, there will be less of an incentive to exit downtown if your ultimate destination is a point further west."

ARDOT's preferred configuration for a widened I-30 would add four "connector-distributer lanes" on either side of six "through lanes" to funnel traffic off and on to the highway in what is known as a "split diamond" pattern. The design requires hard right or hard left turns at stoplights (with the exception of one "Texas turnaround") for southbound drivers exiting into downtown Little Rock, and is highly contentious among residents of the River Market district because of traffic and the disappearance of parking. Dale Pekar, a former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers analyst, said the split diamond exit at Fourth Street, as is now envisioned, would eliminate the "seamless transition" of the current cloverleaf, which has "effectively only one stoplight between Cantrell and I-30," and put in its place an alternative that will include "four to six lights ... a violation of basic urban planning standards."

Comments from people opposed to the plan ranged from brief emailed sentences ("ABSOLUTELY 100% AGAINST WIDENING I-30") to multiple-page, footnoted documents. Those documents challenged ARDOT's traffic models, its plans for the project in case of a shortfall in funds and expressed concerns with the PEL (planning and environmental linkages) process; described the Environmental Assessment as lacking in its failure to address public transit, new technology, and more; and called for for the agency to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement, a more thorough analysis. One person noted that a federal court required an Environmental Impact Statement be performed for the proposed (and unsuccessful) extension of Rebsamen Park Road west along the Arkansas River, a tiny project compared to 30 Crossing.

Much of the opposition came from parties who have made their stand well known over the past couple of years of debate over the project: residents, neighborhood associations, architects and potential litigants, including Pekar. But the Army Corps of Engineers, which has not made much of a splash at public meetings, also found fault with the Environmental Assessment.

In its comment, the Corps asked 1) for a change in one of the structural elements of the I-30 bridge and that ARDOT provide its changes for review and approval by the Corps; 2) that ARDOT include "discussion" on the impact of the project on a residential development north of Dark Hollow; 3) that ARDOT elucidate how Level of Service and peak traffic are related "since they are considered in the analysis and are used to develop the purpose and need"; 4) that ARDOT address minority population impacts more clearly and include "historical discussion regarding the disproportionate impacts of transportation on minority populations"; and 5) that the Environmental Assessment be reworded to more clearly define wetlands, include information of the importance of wetlands and to detail the measures ARDOT has taken to avoid or minimize impact on wetlands.

The Corps also asked ARDOT to "verify that the statement, 'Therefore the historic decline in water resources is not likely to continue and is not a concern due to the large amounts of wetlands and floodplains present in the project watershed,' is accurate since many publications state that there is actually a slow and steady decline of water resources due to development."

Examples, taken in whole or part from comments, regarding a variety of concerns:

"Please do not turn 'the City of Roses' into 'The City of Concrete.' Why are you willing to ruin downtown Little Rock to eliminate 15 minutes drive time for a commuter who lives and pays taxes in another county?"

"We would be paying twice for this in public health expenditures on top of the costs of widening itself. It is a gross misallocation of tax dollars."

"You are using a 20th century mindset, where cars were king, that is not true of younger generations. We need more walkable, bikeable neighborhoods and better mass transit for the 21st century."

"Go to Europe and look at a real city! They encourage bikes, don't run giant expressways right through the city center."

"I just moved to downtown Little Rock because it is very walkable and safe to walk. This project will completely change that safety. ... I think lots of young people like me will end up moving away from LR."

"I am filled with disgust and near fury at the adamant stupidity of the plan proposed for I-30 through Little Rock. Apparently the state Highway and Transportation Department has somewhat the same mentality that the U.S. Corps of Engineers demonstrated some years ago when they wanted to dam the Buffalo: 'If the money is there, we gotta spend it.' "

"While I seriously doubt whether anyone reads these submittals (I have provided several in the past and have never gotten any acknowledgement of receipt or a reply), I would again like to express my strong disapproval for the conversion of Third Street into a major artery leading into Interstate 30. ... Tree-lined, quiet and pedestrian/pet oriented should be the appropriate goal to be realized by the state highway department."

There was a p.s. on one comment: "And it won't work. This expansion will not solve congestion by ARDOT's own admission."

Some of the comments in favor of the highway widening — a number emanating from an advertising agency downtown — suggested that those who submitted them believe the project includes the development of parks (while the plan does allow for acres of greenspace on either side of a new Second Street, ARDOT will not build any parks): A writer from Bryant wrote, "After the concrete walls are taken down and green spaces added, our downtown will feel like a more fun, safe place to be. I know I will frequent it more often." Another person commented, "Having more greenspace and the ability to hold community events such as Yoga on the green deck, concerts, art festivals, etc. would be a huge benefit." The 4,000-page Environmental Assessment makes no mention of yoga, so it's unclear what the writer is referring to.

Not all commenters took a stand either way. One person who commented suggested the new bridge be named for Maya Angelou. Another asked that the bridge be painted blue. Another advocated for ARDOT, Little Rock and the state to build a park over the interstate.

There were also expressions of concern from landowners in North Little Rock, including Shorter College, whose property will be affected by the road. Several expressed skepticism that ARDOT's decision would be in any way affected by public opinion in opposition to the doubling of the width of I-30 through Little Rock and North Little Rock:

"At one of the first public meetings that I attended, [ARDOT Director] Scott Bennett assured all of us in attendance that ARDOT 'would not shove this down our throats.' Yes, ARDOT, for those of us who live downtown and will be impacted the most, this is exactly what you are doing. If the people of Little Rock, and particularly those of us who live downtown, don't matter, then we have no democracy and no state or local government that respects or responds to our concerns and needs."

"Scott Bennett also seems to have a personal dislike for Little Rock ... . Here is just one example from his Twitter feed in response to the following comment ... : 'Are you telling me this concrete disaster can't be stopped. That Little Rock is powerless to prevent its destruction by you? Scott Bennett (@AHTDSCOTT): 'would it be better if it were asphalt?' "

The department will submit the Environmental Assessment, public comments and replies to those comments, which were not yet available at press time, to the Federal Highway Administration. It hopes to get a Finding of No Significant Impact (a FONSI) so it can go forward. If the highway administration does issue a FONSI, litigation to force the agency to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement is expected.

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