- Associated Press - Friday, November 27, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A $600 million plan to widen an interstate corridor in the heart of Arkansas’ capital is raising concerns that it will hamper a downtown revitalization project that’s been underway since former President Bill Clinton opened his library more than a decade ago.

Work isn’t expected to begin until 2018 on the nearly 6.7-mile Interstate 30 corridor that runs through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, and the state hasn’t submitted its plan to federal officials yet. But the proposal is already sharply dividing lawmakers, city officials and others.

Most of the debate centers on the proposal to widen the six-lane corridor to an eight or 10-lane design, a change that highway officials say is needed to ease congestion and improve safety. The plan also calls for replacing the aging I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River.

A coalition of neighborhood groups have objected to the concept, saying more lanes could threaten the downtown development that has boomed since Clinton’s library opened in 2004. The library and the headquarters for nonprofit Heifer International are adjacent to I-30, while new hotels and restaurants have been popping up on both sides of the corridor.

“The question becomes do you want to throw all of that progress in jeopardy by widening an interstate?” said state Rep. Warwick Sabin, a Democrat from Little Rock who’s been one of the most outspoken against the widening plan.

Sabin and other opponents argue widening the interstate will create a bigger shadow of concrete and steel over the city.

“I appreciate that commuters have a lot of time spent on the road, but that’s their decision,” Rebecca Engstrom, who lives in the River Market District, said at a town hall meeting on the project earlier this month. “They’ve made that option to live elsewhere and to drive into Little Rock. I don’t believe we should cut up our city and our community to make life easier for commuters.”

Highway officials have already scaled back or altered some parts of the project in response to objections, including keeping a streetcar line that connects to the Clinton Library and dropping a plan to funnel highway traffic onto two downtown roads.

But state Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett said the additional lanes are needed given the projected traffic growth in coming years.

“What may be 30 minutes or an hour of extreme congestion in the morning or the afternoon is growing to 2 plus hours in the future,” Bennett said. “The congestion gets a lot worse and when the congestion gets worse, the safety issues get a lot worse.”

The expansion plan hasn’t met resistance from all corners of the city: The Little Rock Board of Directors has delayed voting on a resolution asking the state to consider alternatives to the project, while the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is backing the 10-lane expansion proposal.

“This overall design provides increased accessibility, as well as safety for people traveling to and from the downtown area,” Chamber President Jay Chesshir said at the town hall meeting this month.

The state is still conducting its environmental study on the interstate project, and is expected to submit its preferred alternative to the federal government sometime next summer. The department is expected to hold more public hearings next year on the proposal.

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

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