- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Highway Commission voted Wednesday to study adding part-time toll lanes to Little Rock area freeways, which supporters say could alleviate traffic for commuters and help efforts to expand mass transit in the region.

The commission approved partnering with Metroplan, the planning organization for the central Arkansas area, to study adding “high occupancy toll” lanes to Pulaski, Faulkner, Saline and Lonoke counties. The study will likely take six months to a year to complete.

“There are a lot of things being done in urban areas around the country and we want to see if it could be implemented in Arkansas and how it would work,” Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett said.

Metroplan Executive Director Jim McKenzie said the HOT lanes could be available to drivers during morning and afternoon commutes for a price and for free to the area’s bus system, and be available to other drivers outside of peak driving time.

“You can basically guarantee anybody that is in the hot lane is going to make pretty good time,” McKenzie said.

Arkansas currently doesn’t have any toll lanes in the state, though the idea has been debated in the past. Bennett said the department is currently studying HOT lanes for a portion of Interstate 30 between south Little Rock and Benton.

McKenzie and Bennett said the study would look at pricing options for using the HOT lane, demand for such a lane and who can have access to the lane during non-peak hours. In a letter to Bennett in March, McKenzie also said the time the lane is toll could expand as demand grows.

McKenzie said allowing buses to use the lane could also help expanding the region’s mass transit system. Currently, the Rock Region Metro serves Little Rock, North Little Rock, Maumelle, Jacksonville, Sherwood and Pulaski County.

The study comes as the state’s plan to widen the nearly 6.7-mile Interstate 30 corridor that runs through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock has faced opposition from residents, city leaders and others concerned about the impact it will have on downtown development.

McKenzie said the lanes are far from a certainty and cautioned drivers to not expect to pay for driving on any of the region’s highways anytime soon.

“It’ll take some time, but as any long range planner wants to know, we want to know he options for the future,” McKenzie said.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ademillo

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