Leader Blues

Monday, June 04, 2007

TOP STORY >>North Belt Freeway construction may be postponed

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Competition for highway construction dollars will increase just at the time that $200 million is needed to complete the North Belt Freeway if the state Highway and Transportation Department goes forward with plans to build an improved $100 million I-630/I-430 interchange and widen I-630 between that interchange and University Avenue.

No one on the Metroplan board of directors has suggested that such improvements to west Little Rock’s most congested stretch of highway are not needed, but the highway department proposal presents several problems for the board and — in addition to North Belt Freeway funding — could impact travelers between Little Rock and Cabot in other ways.

For instance, the Highway Department would like Metroplan to do a mass transit study quickly, and that might speed up the eventual construction of light rail or other mass transit between the Little Rock area and Cabot, with stops likely at least in Jacksonville and Sherwood.

“You may not identify the mass transit (route) within the two years we need,” highway department representative Scott Bennett told fellow Metroplan board members. The Highway Department says the west Little Rock project could begin in October, the start of the new federal fiscal year, and it could be completed by 2017.

The only money available for it so far is $16 million in federal highway funds that is earmarked for study and engineering and the first phase of the nterchange. In response to a question by Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, Bennett said consultants had already done a planning study and “We came up with a preferred alternative.”

Money is not currently available to build either the North Belt Freeway or the west Little Rock interchange improvement and neither project is included on the long-range transportation plan that looks forward to 2030. Highway Commissioner Carl Rosenbaum has been a proponent of making that section of the North Belt Freeway a toll road, not likely an option for the west Little Rock improvements.

A year ago, the interchange project, exclusive of all the work Little Rock would have to do downstream on University, for instance, would cost $70 million. Bennett said construction costs have been going up about 10 percent a year, meaning the estimate has already risen to about $77 million.

Bennett says the job is currently projected as an eight-lane highway—four east and four west—but longstanding Metroplan policy says the entire central Arkansas interstate system must all be six lanes, regional and arterial roads robust and mass transit implemented before any highway can be built to eight through lanes.

Including entrance and exit lanes, this stretch of I-630 could be 10 or even 11 lanes in some places, according to a highway department computer model.

The previous Metroplan boards seemed dedicated to the six-lane policy, but more than half of the members of the board sworn in January are new. Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines is among those who say the region cannot build its way out of congestion by adding lanes. Build more lanes, and more cars and trucks will fill them up, Villines said.

Both Metroplan and the Highway Department want any improvement to the interchange and I-630 to allow for light rail or other mass transit, but the highway department is in a hurry to get started and it would take about two years and as much as half a million dollars that they don’t have to do a comprehensive mass transit study.

Bennett reported that the consultants already had laid out a light rail possibility through the proposed interchange, but not all the way to University.

“We’re further along in interchange design than you are in deciding and planning light rail,” Bennett said.

Bennett said when the department finishes its construction design, it would hold a public hearing before finalizing it.
In addition to needing to weave back and forth across the I-630 corridor between Markham Street and Kanis Road to accommodate commuting workers and customers at the shopping centers, hospitals and business and commercial complexes along the way, the study would need to include mass transit on through downtown Little Rock and on to the Little Rock Airport and also to Conway, Cabot and Benton.