It MIGHT be that a 10-lane Interstate 30 through Little Rock is the best alternative for moving traffic through the state's capital, continuing the ill-chosen design of the 1950s to have interstate highways course through major cities, leaving destruction, decay and fractured neighborhoods in their paths.
We will never know for sure, because the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department and its enablers are uninterested in serious consideration of alternatives to the widening they prefer. The recent emergence of a brilliant idea from the Fennell architecture firm for a grade-level, tree-lined thoroughfare through town, with intercity traffic moved to ring interstates, seems unlikely to get any but a passing acknowledgment. Scott Bennett, the state highway director, laughed at just such an idea on social media early in the debate on the highway plan.
The Highway Department is one thing. It builds freeways. Alternative roadways, bike lanes, pedestrians and mass transit are low on its priority list. But you'd hope for better from Little Rock leaders.
The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce has preemptively declared the issue closed and the insider talk is that they are correct. It announced support for a 10-lane freeway before any meaningful discussions were held on alternatives. The same for steel magnate Tom Schueck and banker Frank Scott, Little Rock residents who hold seats on the state Highway Commission. Scott has bought into Sen. Linda Chesterfield's unsupported notion that people in Hensley or in Southwest Little Rock face interminable commutes made a minute or two slower by occasional rush-hour traffic pileups. No need to refer them to numerous traffic studies that say widening roads merely induces new traffic demand and often produces even slower commutes.
The most discouraging performance came at last week's City Board meeting, thanks to City Directors Lance Hines and Dean Kumpuris, who strongly oppose a milquetoast resolution politely asking the highway department to do a little more study. Hines expressed disdain for smart growth. He also characterized a freeway expansion as the free market at work. It is anything but. It is a subsidized roadway that subsidizes suburban development, on top of other subsidies given commuters such as free parking for many state employees and the unpaid toll they put on city services (fire, police, parks, planning, streets).
Kumpuris thinks the freeway is necessary to continue the revival of downtown, a cause he's championed. But the revival has come despite the disruptive I-30 and 630 freeways, not because of them. Just now, with downtown revival leaping the Berlin Wall of interstate concrete to the east side, he and Hines and the state think we should throw up still more concrete.
Jim Lynch, a smart growth activist, chimed in with a reminder for Lance Hines, who lives in West Little Rock, that we went down this road as Little Rock sprawled westward. (Hines also said he likes sprawl.)
Lynch wrote for the Arkansas Blog about how the city annexed 9 square miles of mostly raw land over a 10-year period ending in 1999, resisting in each case a call for analysis of the cost of extending city services and the potential impact on neighborhoods left behind. As now, city officials saw no need then for studies.
The cost of expansion was huge and added less in benefit than predicted because we mostly shifted, rather than grew population and shifted businesses and churches and homes to new locations, with rot and segregated schools left behind.
Lynch notes that Kumpuris was around for all those annexation decisions. He said, "Dean Kumpuris was wrong in the 1990s on annexation, in my judgment, but he has toiled for the last 15 years to clearly help downtown and older LR. Why would he jeopardize his success by ignoring a simple study of 30 Crossing alternatives?"
Why? Because city leaders too often make decisions on faith, not facts. Hines simply KNOWS the 10-lane plan is better. He even sent around a memo making fun of those who say self-driving cars could change transportation in years ahead. Self-driving cars? Next thing you know somebody will say Dick Tracy was right. We may someday wear two-way wristwatch TVs. Or that there's a better way to advertise a used car than a newspaper classified section.