Public comments are being compiled on a $630 million proposal to widen Interstate 30 from six to 10 lanes in central Arkansas. Friday was the deadline for people to give their thoughts on an environmental assessment, with the proposal to now be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration for approval.
Construction is scheduled to begin next year on the 6.7 mile project through the downtowns of Little Rock and North Little Rock, which would include replacing the Arkansas River Bridge. But opponents have remained vocal and a legal challenge is expected.
30 Crossing Project Director Ben Browning with the Arkansas Department of Transportation says after reviewing environmental issues, the state has made its recommendation.
"We’re able to go forward with what we call a Finding of No Significant Impact, and right now that’s what we’re proposing to the Federal Highway Administration," Browning said Friday on the Arkansas Educational Television Network program "Arkansas Week."
"We’ve looked at all of those things – hazardous materials, impacts to the communities, cumulative effects of other projects, air quality, noise – and through all of that very exhaustive study we found that although there are minor impacts from the project, [there is] nothing significant."
Browning said transportation planners have been careful in how they are proceeding with the project, expecting that a lawsuit will be filed.
"It’s a very well-defined federal process you go through when you’re clearing a project environmentally, and so we feel very confident that we’ve done a very extensive and very exhaustive environmental study, looked at all aspects of the project, documented it [and] provided the data to support it."
But Barry Haas, an opponent of the project, argues there have been many flaws in the planning process. He also does not believe state officials have objectively considered alternatives to widening I-30.
"A number of us think the designers decided on the front end rather than the back end, here’s what we want to build, and then the process has evolved to basically support that end product that they wanted," Haas said.
He argues an environmental impact statement should be required of the 30 Crossing project, which is more stringent than the environmental assessment. Otherwise Hass says transportation officials are "guaranteeing a lawsuit."
At this point, the Arkansas Department of Transportation is summarizing public comments and will prepare a response to each issue. The Federal Highway Administration will then decide whether to accept the department’s Finding of No Significant Impact. It would be appropriate after that decision, Hass said, to decide whether to file a legal challenge.
Last week, a court hearing was held on a federal lawsuit aimed at halting a different highway project, which would add one lane in each direction of a 2.2 mile stretch of Interstate 630 in Little Rock. After a day of oral arguments and testimony, U.S. District Judge James Moody ruled that a group of plaintiffs did not show sufficient evidence that they would prevail at trail and refused to issue a temporary restraining order.
Haas said public comments have been overwhelming against expanding I-30 and that it will have a negative impact on the region, environmentally as well as economically.
"The River Market district and all those areas just starting east of I-30, this project really has the potential to almost kill all of that potential growth and increase in the tax base," Haas said.
Browning said the state has been studying the congestion of I-30 since 2014, considering every reasonable and feasible alternative, and determined that widening the interstate is the best approach. With the Arkansas River Bridge being nearly 60 years old, he also said this would be an ideal time to replace it.