Leader Blues

Saturday, October 28, 2006

TOP STORY >>Six lanes of highway may still be not enough

IN SHORT: The state Highway Department’s 15-lane proposal for I-630 conflicts with Metroplan’s six-lane maximum in central Arkansas.

Leader staff writer

How many traffic lanes will there be on the area’s freeways — six or as many as 15?

An ambitious long-range state Highway and Trans-portation Department plan that would drastically reconfigure the I-630/I-430 interchange to include as many as 15 east-west traffic lanes conflicts with local design standards, according to Metroplan director Jim McKenzie, who called this week for talks that would also include Central Arkansas Transit and the City of Little Rock.

While the major players seem in agreement that improving and expanding the interchange is important, the project is not included in Metro 2030—the 25-year highway plan—and a conservative construction estimate of $70 million could suck up money needed to complete higher priority projects like widening I-40 to six lanes from Little Rock to Conway and widening Hwy. 67/167 from I-40 north to Cabot, according to McKenzie.

Those projects, already begun, are in the Metro 2030 plan, with construction money already identified. The I-430/I-630 Interchange project is on the Metro 2030 wish list, but only $15 million has been identified and committed to it, McKenzie said.

Current Metroplan policy requires study of other alternatives, including light rail, before consideration of increasing the six-lane limit.

As the area’s metropolitan planning organization, Metroplan must sign off on projects built with Federal Highway Administration money. The proposal unveiled at the meeting is for 15 lanes on I-630 just east of Shackleford Road, then 10 lanes to John Barrow Drive, six lanes from John Barrow to University and finally six lanes from University to downtown Little Rock.

Metroplan policy, decided by Central Arkansas mayors and county judges, currently sets six lanes—three each direction—as the maximum for area highways, at least until all are built out to six lanes and consideration given to alternatives like light rail mass transit, according to McKenzie.

Scott Bennett, the highway department’s assistant chief engineer for planning, showed board members an impressive, animated computer model that projected how traffic would flow along all the lanes, including new overpasses, exits and entrances and flyovers, based upon future growth projections.

“Let’s start resolving this so we don’t get into a North Belt (Freeway) situation again,” McKenzie said. Funding for the entire North Belt Freeway was available at one time, but repeated delays caused by disagreements between the Highway Department on one hand and Metroplan and the city of Sherwood on the other brought construction to a halt, allowing money to be siphoned off for other projects instead.

“This needs to be reconciled earlier rather than later,” he added. McKenzie said the $70 million estimate wasn’t enough when proposed a year ago, didn’t include expensive interface between I-630 and Little Rock streets and didn’t take into account construction material inflation.

“Unless we can find some new money, we’re not going to be able to do much,” he said. Highway construction funded by gas tax is pretty inelastic, while inflation (in building materials) is very elastic now that there is global competition for aggregate, cement and petroleum-based asphalt with India and China.”

McKenzie said previous studies have suggested identifying a second east-west route between west Little Rock and downtown somewhere in the Markham—I-630—Kanis corridor instead of adding new lanes to I-630, and making provisions for eventual light rail mass transit.

“We may want to build light rail before widening the freeway,” McKenzie said. “We can’t support light rail right now, but we’re trying to lay the groundwork for it when we can.” He added that Metroplan’s six-lane maximum was not intended to last for ever, but at least until all major freeways are six-lanes and the secondary regional arterial road network is beefed up.
McKenzie said work toward a resolution of these issues with the Highway and Transportation Department, CAT and Little Rock should begin “As soon as possible.”