Columns » Max Brantley

STOP I-30 widening

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THE PLAN: Calls for a wider river of concrete. - ARKANSAS HIGHWAY AND TRANSPORTATION DEPARTMENT
  • Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department
  • THE PLAN: Calls for a wider river of concrete.

Brave progressives stood tall in Little Rock in 1958 when Gov. Orval Faubus tried to fire school teachers suspected of supporting desegregation. STOP, for Stop This Outrageous Purge, was formed to support school board members who fought Faubus and oust those who didn't. They stopped the purge.

We need another STOP campaign. Stop This Outrageous Project — the 30 Crossing project to widen Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock to as many as 10 lanes and replace the Arkansas River Bridge.

The bridge may need to be replaced. The south and north terminal interchanges could use improvement. But the city doesn't need a wider Berlin Wall between east and west in our city.

Some other cities have stopped building — even torn down — freeways. They carry huge subsidies from nonuser taxpayers. They don't ease congestion. San Francisco rose up to stop a freeway that would have ruined what is now one of the finest parts of town. Does it create some rush hour traffic jams? Yes. And so what?

The Arkansas Highway Department's ONLY interest in the 30 Crossing project is to move I-30 traffic through town quicker and to reduce congestion during perhaps 10 hours a week, a brief benefit to long-distance commuters, but at great cost to people who live here. In churlish Twitter posts over the weekend, Highway Department Director Scott Bennett, who lives in Bryant, indicated congestion was his primary concern and that there were reasons (hint, hint) people wanted to flee Little Rock. He complained at TV coverage of a recent public hearing, marked by criticism of the project.

State Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) wrote cogently for the department to rethink this project. So has a consortium of architects, designers and builders. State Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) urged the Heights Neighborhood Association to oppose the project as planned and it did. If work must be done, it should take every effort to mitigate damage to the city.

I-30 was planned at a time when mayors thought it good to blast high-volume freeways through the hearts of cities. The Mills Freeway, finally built after a protracted fight, created decay along its path and segregated the city. I-30 is lined by decay. Make it wider and it will only increase the decay. A current plan also calls for a ruinous new path between I-30 and Cantrell Road, along Second Street; truncation of the streetcar line east of the freeway, and other roadblocks to ready connections between the east and west sides of town.

This comes just as the east side of Little Rock is blooming. Already it has the Clinton Library and Heifer International, two brew pubs, a distillery and new plans for a mixed-used development anchored by the Cromwell architecture firm and a charter school. Hanger Hill has a row of new $200,000 homes, which are close enough to the freeway as it is, without encroachment of more lanes. The neighborhood is ripe for redevelopment. One of the state's most historic homes is being preserved there. A wall of concrete, particularly if done with the Highway Department's customary disdain for pedestrians and bicycles, will discourage all this.

They call this a half-billion project, but Metroplan says it's more like $4 billion counting maintenance. That doesn't count time lost during construction. It doesn't count future traffic accommodations for the disruptive influence. The Highway Department has been rapped for facilitating public discussions through an employee of a firm that will be paid commensurate with the size of the project. What, Bennett snarked on Twitter, they should use Warwick Sabin instead? No, but somebody without self-interest would be better.

It's time to look for alternatives to unending freeway construction. Why should it be state policy to subsidize suburban growth? Why not design feeder routes from ring bypasses, as the great cities do? Let people work out alternate schedules, or move, if they don't like weekday morning traffic jams. But don't punish Little Rock.

The Highway Department haughtily dismissed alternatives for its unimaginative Broadway Bridge replacement plan, accepting cosmetic embellishments only because the county paid for it. This bigger, more disastrous project also seems precooked. But study has begun on the possibility of a public interest lawsuit. Local people have begun speaking loudly, and must. The Corps of Engineers — and the "Keep Busy" attitude famously lampooned in George Fisher cartoons years ago — are but Tinker Toy builders compared with the highway lobby.

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