Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

TOP STORY >>North Belt Loop may hit another bump in the road

Leader staff writer

A draft environmental-impact statement for the North Belt Freeway could be completed “shortly after the first of the year,” according to Randy Ort, spokesman for the state Highway and Transportation Department, clearing the way for a public hearing on the proposed route through Sherwood.

Once a route is finalized and approved by the Metroplan board of directors, the actual engineering can begin, followed by purchase of the right-of-way, Ort said. After that, the job can be put out for bids—assuming that there is money available. Actual construction would take two or three years, Ort said. Depending upon the route, the segment will be between 12.5 miles and 15 miles long, with estimated costs ranging between $250 million and $350 million.

That missing link between Hwy. 440 near Jacksonville and I-430 near Crystal Hill, would complete a Little Rock bypass by connecting to I-30, then to I-440 south of the city and back to Jacksonville. It would allow an easy Little Rock bypass for trucks and traffic on I-40. Competition for highway money, always stiff, will increase in the face of the Highway Department’s recently introduced plan for a 15-lane, Dallas-like I-630/I-430 interchange, which could cost in excess of $100 million with only $15 million of that available in annual increments between now and 2009.

At Metroplan’s November board meeting, outgoing Sherwood Mayor Bill Harmon brought this problem to the board’s attention when he asked if the interchange proposal could make it more difficult to pay and finish the North Belt Freeway.

But that west Little Rock interchange seems to be a high priority for Little Rock and northern North Little Rock officials and those who commute to Little Rock from Conway and from Saline County, according to Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan. Currently no money is earmarked for completion of the North Belt Loop. Ort said that there is no plan to make it a toll road, although a study has been completed that identified the loop as one of two new state Highways feasible for funding and expedited by making it a toll road. The other is the Bella Vista bypass, which is moving forward as a toll road, Ort said. Funding most likely would come from a combination of state and federal highway monies.

“Tolling has been an option,” Ort said, “but it’s not being pursued right now.” The advantage of making it a toll road is that it would allow debt financing and quicker construction. Carl Rosenbaum, central Arkansas’ representative on the state Highway Commission, has said he favors making it a toll road.

The concept of the North Belt Freeway was put on the Pulaski County master street and road plan in 1941. Currently it’s all done except the Sherwood stretch, which ground to a halt about two years ago when residents objected to running it through several new subdivisions.

Problems facing Metroplan board of directors regarding the highway department’s proposal to build the state’s most ambitious, largest interchange, with as many as 15 lanes headed south on I-630 toward University Avenue are twofold. One is the competition for money for already-approved projects and the other that the interchange would conflict with existing Metroplan policy, according to McKenzie.

He said highway funding was a zero-sum game, meaning if someone’s share of the financial pie increases, someone else’s share decreases. “There is a finite amount of money in the national pot and the state pot,” said McKenzie, “and the demand far, far exceeds the resources.” Currently, the widening of I-630 between I-430 and University is listed as an unfunded $40 million project, he said.

Also, current board policy limits freeway widening to six through lanes until the entire interstate system is built out. That would include widening to six lanes Hwy. 67/167 all the way to Cabot, I-40 to Conway and the ends I-430 before widening anything beyond six lanes. Then it calls for making more robust the regional arterial network—roads like state Hwy. 161, the Jacksonville cutoff and Hwy. 5 at Cabot.

After those are improved, the policy calls for preparing for mass transit before revisiting further freeway widening. “If you widen it, there’s no money left for the arterial system,” said McKenzie. You can’t get anywhere on it and you get into a death spiral. McKenzie and the Highway Department have introduced the proposal early, so that these conflicts can be resolved in a timely fashion rather than with the sudden disruptions that brought the North Belt Freeway to a crawl.