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Arkansas Wants to Widen Highway, Eliminate Streetcar for “Safety”

This is how highway planners envision the expanded road would look during morning rush hour in 40 years. Image: AHDT via Arkansas Times
This is how highway planners envision the expanded road will look in 2055 during morning rush hour. Image: AHDT via Arkansas Times
This is how highway planners envision the expanded road would look during morning rush hour in 40 years. Image: AHDT via Arkansas Times

Where to even begin with this?

Officials in Arkansas are pushing a plan to widen a partly elevated highway through the center of Little Rock from six lanes to 10 lanes at a cost of $600 million. It's bad enough that the state wants to ram an elevated highway through downtown at a time when many cities are looking to tear them down, but it gets worse.

To widen I-30, the state would require Little Rock to rip up part of an existing streetcar line.

To top it all off, highway planners have said the highway project is necessary for -- ahem -- "safety."

What the heck is going on here?

Arkansas Department of Highways and Transportation just completed a year-long environmental study for the project they call 30 Crossing. The agency's "preferred alternative" is the 10-lane highway widening, which it believes is the best way to "relieve congestion, improve roadway safety" and address structural deficiencies in the road.

Tim McKuin, a local resident who writes the blog Move Arkansas, says the impetus for the project was the I-30 Arkansas River Bridge, which needed to be replaced. In addition, state highway builders are flush with cash after Arkansas passed a half-cent sales tax measure for increased highway spending in 2012.

Multiple options were studied, and the state ended up favoring the version with the most highway widening. The road can't be widened to 10 lanes without removing a portion of Little Rock's streetcar, meaning the line would no longer serve two of its most popular destinations: the Clinton Presidential Library and the headquarters of the global charity Heifer International. Tearing up the streetcar would also foreclose the long-discussed possibility of extending the streetcar to the airport, said McKuin.

Resistance to Arkansas DOT's vision for downtown Little Rock is building.

Max Brantley at the Arkansas Times called it a "keep busy" project for state highway builders, writing that he drove the length of the highway at rush hour last week at the speed limit.

A state representative says the "Connect 30" project threatens thr River Market area. Photo:
A LIttle Rock Councilman representing downtown says the "Connect 30" project threatens the thriving River Market area. Photo:

A coalition of local architects and engineers called Studio Main wrote a letter [PDF] detailing 11 major concerns about the project, including the prioritization of drivers over pedestrians and cyclists.

Some residents, including attorney Brad Walker, have even proposed replacing the elevated highway with an at-grade boulevard.

And in a statement about the road project, Warwik Sabin, a state representative, said the project would "further divide neighborhoods, disrupt public transit, and degrade the unique culture and economic development potential of the area."

The project poses particular concerns for the popular River Market entertainment area.

"It seems frivolous and short-sighted to further widen a freeway at the expense of a downtown streetscape that recently has been revitalized and continues to improve," Sabin wrote. "In the end, we should be trying to entice people to live in Little Rock or pull over for a visit, as opposed to making it easier for them to live elsewhere or drive by more quickly."

Even the project planners have noted that widening the road to 10 lanes is likely to just move bottlenecks to other parts of the interstate system. Widening other highway segments in response to that traffic would cost an outrageous $4 billion.

During a meeting last week, there was an outpouring of concerns from the public about the proposal, reports the Arkansas Times, including the assertion that "it's normal to have rush hour traffic and 10 lanes is overbuilding."

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