Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why I Oppose Widening I-630 (and now I-30) in Little Rock

Short Update 1/10/2019

Oh weird, ArDOT's cost estimate for 30 Crossing turned out to be way too low. Who could have guessed that?! (Answer: everyone)
Having originally provided a figure of $325 million, bids recently came in at about $1 billion for just the 30 Crossing part (which doesn't cover the inevitable fixes to future bottlenecks the project will cause on adjacent sections of highway).

This means trouble for the proposed (and completely unnecessary) widening of I-30. If they can't find more money, they'll have to figure out what they can get for $500-$600 million (hint: a lot less). Then there is the issue of whether they can legally spend money dedicated to building 4-lane highways to build a 10-lane one. Then there is the issue of whether making large changes to the plan will require a new environmental assessment, which takes time. You can bet that the same amount of work will only get more expensive as time passes and that getting new estimates in 6-12 months will only make their problems worse.

The right thing to do would be for ArDOT to drop this terrible idea and work with Little Rock on the boulevard concept that would be way better for the city and cheaper for Arkansas taxpayers. I won't hold my breath waiting for them to make that decision, but it sounds like they'll at least have a tougher time moving forward with this boondoggle.

Updated 10/2015 

This post has gotten long and unwieldy from all the updates, but I want to leave all the info below and add this brief summary.

1. Arkansas has the 12th largest highway system in the US, yet we rank 32nd in population and 29th in area. Given that we consistently rank near the bottom in education and health, the last thing we need to spend more money on is more highways or lanes on highways! According to that AHTD document, we have more miles of highway than California, New York, or Florida. (Loved this stat from MoveArkansas: 25: the number of traffic lanes connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan today. 26: the number of traffic lanes connecting Little Rock to North Little Rock today. Brooklyn and Manhattan combined have 10X the population of Central Arkansas. Also, more lanes connect LR&NLR than SF & Oakland)

2. AHTD complains about lack of highway funding while proposing unnecessary multi-billion dollar projects that will damage our communities, won't improve traffic in the long-term, and will boost the cost of future maintenance when we already can't afford to maintain what we've got. The widening of I-30 stands to be the single most expensive undertaking in AHTD's history.

3. Our state's approach to transportation is stuck in the past. While other states are closing urban freeways, putting roads on diets, and focusing on prioritizing active and mass transportation while maintaining roads and bridges; Arkansas still seems to think widening highways and interstates is the way to go. We are prioritizing long commutes and sprawl over local communities and quality of life. Look at these incredible examples and then imagine what we could do with I-630 or that section of I-30. Let's route just-passing-through traffic around the city on I-440 and get rid of these things.

4. The plans to widen more of I-630 and I-30 (to 10 lanes?!) are a huge waste of money and will damage the character of downtown Little Rock. They will make it harder to get around by bike or rail and will make the RiverMarket and Clinton Library less scenic. These projects are in direct conflict with AHTD's Mission: "Provide a safe, efficient, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sound intermodal transportation system for the user." Adding Interstate lanes at the expense of rail, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure is the opposite of intermodal. Watch the video or visit the Facebook page below to get an idea for how "aesthetically pleasing" these projects will be.

What you can do:

Please read on for some history and other resources.

Updated 4/21/2015 & 10/12/2015 to reflect new proposal to widen I-30 to 10 lanes in Central Arkansas & impact that would have on existing rail.

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department is looking hard at widening I-630, first from Baptist Hospital to University Ave. and then all the way to I-30 downtown.  They are also reportedly considering widening I-30 around downtown to 10 lanes.  These are all horrible ideas and worse than a complete waste of taxpayer money.  While this post may seem a bit off-topic at first, allow me to explain why it isn't:

1.  AHTD funds roads and alternative transportation projects (including trails) in the state.  Wasting money on highway projects takes away funding from projects that actually improve traffic, public health, and quality of life.  Widening projects not only waste money upfront, but guarantee that it will be wasted for maintenance and repairs for decades into the future.  Funding for interstates and alternative transportation often comes from different pools of federal money, but AHTD does have some discretion on where money is spent and wasting taxpayer money is not a good thing.  These interstate projects around Little Rock will cost hundreds of millions of dollars if built, enough for light rail between downtown and West Little Rock or a thousand miles of bike trail (which have lower maintenance costs due to the lower weight of bikes and pedestrians).  Given that the United States Highway Trust fund has not been fully solvent since 2008, we should at most be talking about maintaining current highway infrastructure and fixing failing bridges rather than expanding these highways at great upfront and future cost.  Income from the gas tax that funds the Highway Fund has been declining for the past decade; as people continue to drive less and drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, funds raised from the tax will continue to decline.

2.  Widening highways never improves traffic in the medium or long-term; in fact it makes traffic worse.  This counter-intuitive fact has been supported by numerous studies and isn't questioned by professional traffic engineers.  AHTD likes these kinds of projects because building highways is their job.  Interestingly enough, no one on the Arkansas State Highway Commission has a degree relating to traffic engineering.  Given how long the work at the I-630/I-430 interchange is taking, I'd be surprised if the short-term decrease in traffic (congestion benefits typically last less than 3 years) from this proposed widening lasted any longer than the period of increased delays during its construction.  This widening project is part of the Connecting Arkansas Program, which has been contracted out to a private engineering firm.  Even 'public comments' sent through the CAP website that has AHTD logos all over it actually go to a employee of that private company.  I'm waiting to hear how/when/if those comments will be seen by an actual state employee.

3.  Widening highways increases sprawl, driving up costs of city services while depleting the tax-base which pays for those services.  Thanks to I-630, Little Rock is already obligated to provide fire, police, water, sewer, and roads for a much larger area (West Little Rock, SW Little Rock) all while the population of the city grew at a much lower rate than its area.  Widening the interstate will only make this problem worse. Sprawl costs the United States $1 trillion every year.

4.  In particular, urban auxiliary interstates like I-630 harm areas closest to downtown.  This highway spurred white-flight and helped segregate Little Rock, while encouraging the growth of west and southwest LR as well as Conway and Maumelle; which lead the Little Rock Metropolitan area to its current Top-10 position as one the worst sprawling mid-sized cities in the country.

5.  AHTD should actually close I-630 or convert it to a multi-modal boulevard or "complete-street".  San Francisco and other cities around the world have seen improved traffic, greater development, and boosted walkability from closing similar highways. A Metroplan report on walkability in Central Arkansas states  "Cities that have taken out urban freeways have seen neighborhoods blossom in their place, with reductions in congestion...Examples include Harbor Drive in Portland, the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee, and the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco. With many U.S. freeways reaching the end of their service lives, and Federal Highway Trust Fund money drying up, Speck [author of Walkable City] foresees an opportunity to replace more freeways with conventional streets, perhaps reconfigured into “best practice” walkable mixed-use landscapes."

If Arkansas wants better traffic, more walkable/bikeable cities, and improved air-quality and health; then it needs to embrace modern transportation planning and stop focusing on widening roads and start focusing on building better trails, sidewalks, and bike lanes, constructing light-rail projects, and improving mass transit options.

Useful Links/Information
10 lane I-30 would kill rail east of the Interstate.
Metroplan Walkability Report (great statistics, demographic trends, etc)
Walkability of Arkansas Cities and Neighborhoods
The Atlantic covers the issue
Warwick Sabin Statement on I-30 Proposal
Another Arkansas Times piece on the I-30 expansion
Six Freeway Removals That Improved Cities
MoveArkansas Blog
Very basic information on the widening project
Arkansas Times story on the history and negative impacts of I-630
Information on I-630 and potential light-rail, BRT, or Streetcar alternatives to adding lanes via Metroplan.
The next link wasn't working, so here is an article about the same idea.
Scientific Paper on Highway Widening and Traffic Response. (Contains numerous great references to additional studies)
Easier to read Wired story on the same. story on the issue
The Case For Tearing Down Urban Freeways -

Old Material:

The following information was collected from e-mail/Twitter correspondence with officials at CAP, Metroplan, AHTD, Pulaski County, etc.:

Baptist to University Section:
The project to add lanes between Baptist and University Ave. was funded (and in a sense "approved") by the 1/2 cent tax passed in 2012 that funded all CAP projects.  Viewing this as public approval of widening I-630 seems like a bit of stretch even before you get into which citizens should have the most say in what to do with the interstate; those that live nearby or those that live far away.

The need for this particular project was "identified and the widening recommended in a 1999 I-630 corridor study commissioned by Metroplan".  Metroplan board has apparently supported this project.

Currently "in preliminary design", construction on this section will likely begin in 2-3 years, though there should be a public involvement meeting scheduled "for late 2014 or early 2015" to present the preliminary plans to the public for comment.

University to I-30 (Downtown) Section:
This section is not nearly as far along in the planning process.  "At the April 16, 2014, meeting of the Arkansas Highway Commission, a Minute Order (that’s the name of an official action of the Highway Commission) was passed authorizing a study to be undertaken to “determine the need for and feasibility of improvements to Interstate 630 between University Avenue and Interstate 30 in Little Rock.”

"The next step in the process will be for the AHTD to solicit proposals from qualified consultants to conduct the study, then ... go through the consultant selection process, then ... negotiate specific terms of the contract, and finally enter into a contractual agreement with the consultant. All that will take several months."

Once the consultant begins the study, it will likely take over a year and the completed study will be used as a guide in developing future construction programs. The study will look at cost/benefit, other pros and cons, and explore several concepts in addition to widening including HOV, ramp metering, enhanced public transportation, etc.

Even if the study determines improvements are needed in this section, AHTD currently has no timeline in place for implementing them.

Public Meetings:
AHTD employees will meet with the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods on Saturday, June 14th at 10 a.m. at the Wilie Hinton Resource Center on 12th Street, to discuss the process that will be used to study I-630 and I-30 in the coming months/years.  The meeting is open to the public.

Leaders/Groups Opposed to Widening I-630 (Let me know if I am missing any!):
Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines
Downtown Neighborhood Association (I think)

For the section from University to I-30, Metroplan recommended "extensive public involvement, 3D renderings w/ alternatives to weigh in on, and further analysis"

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Levy Trail - North Little Rock

While at the 2014 Bike/Walk Summit, I learned about the Levy Trail in North Little Rock.  While it is currently only partly paved, the trail stretches over 4 miles from I-40 to Camp Robinson roughly paralleling Camp Robinson Rd. on an old rail bed.

I was told the southern part is paved from under I-40 to about 52nd St.  The rest is being worked on and is walkable, but not good for road bikes.  When finished, this trail will improve active transportation options in North Little Rock greatly, especially if connected to the River Trail or Argenta.

I haven't been on the trail, so no pictures yet.  If you have some good photos and wouldn't mind me using them, let me know!

View Levy Trail in a larger map