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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — The Interstate 30 bridge over the Arkansas River is shown in this 2014 file photo. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

An Arkansas River crossing that began as a ferry service helping remove tens of thousands of American Indians over 10 years in the 19th century is on the cusp of a $631.7 million construction project that will allow it to carry tens of thousands of modern commuters a day well into the 21st century.

The 30 Crossing project to remake the 6.7-mile Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, which includes replacing the bridge over the river, is the subject of a final hearing today in a planning and development process that began four years ago.

"We can see the end at least from what we're required to do," said Tom Schueck, a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission from Little Rock. "It's kind of exciting to get that done."

The hearing is required as part of a 45-day public review of the project's environmental assessment, a 3,992-page document that provides justification for the project. Critics, with an eye toward litigation, say they will review it particularly closely.

Jointly sponsored by the state Transportation Department, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the hearing will be held 4 to 7 p.m. in the Silver City rooms of the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel at 2 Riverfront Place in downtown North Little Rock.

More than 20 people already have submitted comments since the comment period opened June 2, according to Danny Straessle, the department spokesman.

The 30 Crossing website has recorded more than 1,300 page views. The website's page devoted to the environmental review has had more than 500 page views.

Regional transportation planners have longed for improving the congested corridor, which features the convergence of six major highways in the space of fewer than 7 miles. The I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River dates from the late 1950s. Built at a cost of $5.5 million, it now carries 124,000 vehicles daily.

State transportation officials said they planned to improve the corridor based on its traditional funding model in which they paid for improvements incrementally when the money was available.

That thinking changed in 2012 when voters approved a temporary half-percent state sales tax, in place for 10 years beginning in 2013. It is tied to a $1.8 billion road construction program focusing on regionally significant projects, including 30 Crossing.

That gave state transportation officials the opportunity to make the improvements all at once. As a result, 30 Crossing will be the single largest project the Transportation Department has undertaken.

The recommended alternative produced as a result of the environmental review would widen the 6.7-mile corridor from Interstate 530 in Little Rock to Interstate 40 in North Little Rock to 10 lanes from six and replace the bridge over the Arkansas River.

The latest design for the 10-lane alternative features four lanes that would be more like city streets, with ramps to lower speeds, narrower lanes, traffic signals and other features that officials say will allow traffic moving on or off I-30 to safely interact with pedestrians and other non-interstate traffic.

The 10-lane alternative has been referred to as a mix of six main through lanes with four collector-distributor lanes. The latter are separated by a wall from the main lanes, have slower speeds and allow traffic traveling between Little Rock and North Little Rock to cross the bridge without entering the main interstate lanes.

The project also includes improvements to the section of I-40 between MacArthur Drive and U.S. 67/167 in North Little Rock and a new interchange in Little Rock to replace the one at Cantrell Road and I-30. Removal of the Cantrell/I-30 interchange would create what city officials envision as a 17-acre park.

It will be a far cry from the first river crossing in the area. The Little Rock from which the state capital takes its name was the low point in the river that American Indians and early European explorers used to cross the Arkansas River.

That and the convergence of other geographical features gave Arkansas a central role in the eventual forced relocation of American Indians from the eastern United States to live in what is now Oklahoma, often called the Trail of Tears removal corridors.

The corridors included the military road between Little Rock and Memphis built in 1828, the river, the Southwest Trail and the military road to Fort Smith. Little Rock was an important juncture for all those routes.

A ferry operated in Little Rock as early as 1832, which coincides with Rock Street. Another ferry site was at Ferry Street, which now ends before it reaches the river. At that point, it is in the shadow of the Interstate 30 river bridge.

"As a locus of removal corridors, central Arkansas witnessed the passage of more than 40,000 tribal people traveling to Indian Territory," according to environmental review's cultural resources survey. The ferry was eventually acquired by William Woodruff, the first publisher of the Arkansas Gazette.

The survey documented no structures in the I-30 corridor study area associated with the Trail of Tears nor any archaeological sites associated with the period.

The review period will continue for another two weeks after today's hearing. At that point, the department will compile and respond to all of the comments and submit them to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. That will allow the department to select a contractor to complete the design and build the project within the $630.7 million budget.

Construction is scheduled to begin early next year. It is scheduled to be completed in 2023.

"Needless to say it's taking a lot longer than we really wanted it to, but I believe we've done everything we could possibly do to do everything correctly and transparently and involving the community," North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith said. "I'm really proud of what the Highway Department has been able to do.

"I think they've done it the right way, and I believe the Federal Highway [Administration] will agree with that."

Scott Bennett, the department director, said the environmental review was completed with an eye toward potential litigation.

"There likely will be a legal challenge," he said Wednesday. "One of the things that we have done in the review process so far with the Federal Highway Administration is have all of the documents reviewed for legal sufficiency and they have passed the test from [the Federal Highway Administration's] standpoint as far as legal sufficiently, and that's basically the review about whether the process we have gone through would stand up to a challenge in court."

Richard Mays, a veteran environmental lawyer who is with the Little Rock law firm of Williams & Anderson, said Wednesday that he represents a "a number of people and organizations who are interested in the potential effects of the expansion of the I-30."

"There's a lot of interest in this on the part of a lot of people who think this is probably not the best idea in the world," he said. "I think you will probably be seeing quite a bit of activity in that area."

Mays, who has filed Arkansas Freedom of Information Act requests with the department and with North Little Rock, said he and members of the group plan to submit comments on the environmental assessment.

As for potential litigation, "I suppose it depends on the response, if any, the agencies make to those comments and the reaction they have," he said.

Tom Fennell, a Little Rock architect who has been a chief critic of the project, dismissed the environmental assessment document as a way to justify what the department wanted when it began the project four years ago.

"They started with a plan four years ago to widen the freeway so many lanes," he said.

"They had an idea of how they wanted to do it, and they really haven't changed. This process has been an extremely expensive effort to post-rationalize what they decided four years ago."

Metro on 07/12/2018

Print Headline: Final hearing today as I-30 project gets closer to start

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