State Highway & Transportation Department Seeks Approval of North Belt Plans

The Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department is hoping it has seen the last of the drawing board after completing its most recent proposed routes for one of the state's most controversial highway engineering projects in history.

Though the concept of the North Belt Freeway has been included on the master plan for roads and highways in Pulaski County since 1941, the most critical leg of the route, or alignment, is still a far cry from becoming a commuter's paradise — not until Metroplan gives the final route a thumbs up.

"In as simple terms as possible, the holdup has been finding an alignment that has enough support to get approved," said Randy Ort, spokesman for the AHTD. "There's no way you can ever make everyone happy on a project like this, but our goal now is to find the best route possible that will at least allow us to move on to the next step."

The piece of the North Belt Freeway in question is a roughly 13-mile, four-lane highway that will extend from the U.S. 67/Interstate 440 interchange in southern Jacksonville westward to the Interstate 430/Interstate 40 interchange near the Crystal Hill exit in North Little Rock.

A route extending from the Crystal Hill area through Camp Robinson has already been selected by the U.S. Army, but heading eastward from there through the Sherwood, Runyan Acres and Gravel Ridge areas has been a major speed bump.

The eastern phase of the North Belt Freeway — which connects U.S. 67/167 to Interstate 40 — cost $63 million and opened in 2003. That route takes a load off traffic for as many as 75,000 commuters that travel through central Arkansas between North Little Rock and Conway.

Sherwood city officials have so far sided with residents who fear noise pollution and the possible condemnation of their homes in order to accommodate an alignment. The city also is wary of trading in prime development real estate for the project. Both issues translate into a roadblock with the Metroplan board of directors, ultimately signifying a dead end for the project until all entities are on the same page.

"Our position was that the fundamental premise of doing a cooperative long-range transportation plan is that the plans all have to be consistent with each other and consistent with the land use plans of the local jurisdictions," said Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan. "The route that (AHTD) had proposed at first was not acceptable to the city of Sherwood. It conflicted both with the land use plan and master street plan."

The original AHTD Environmental Impact Study expired in 1997 after Metroplan did not approve the original alignment, which is why the AHTD is at it again.

"Our job is to come up with the best route by taking into consideration all of the environmental and social aspects," Ort said. "And then once we have a line selected that a majority is happy with, then we can get a Record of Decision on the federal level and move on with the design phase."

Metropain?

Since the North Belt Freeway is an AHTD project, the necessity of getting Metroplan's approval for a route may seem curious.

In 1972 Metroplan was designated the metropolitan planning organization for the central Arkansas metropolitan area by Gov. Dale Bumpers. It was chosen in order to comply with federally mandated transportation planning guidelines that encouraged cooperative foresight among various city governments.

In 1991 Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which essentially gave designated metropolitan planning organizations control over any federal money used on transportation projects.

Since the North Belt Freeway's price tag could soar as high as $250 million, plenty of federal funds will have to be in place to make the project a reality.

"Basically, we cannot use federal funds on a project in (Metroplan's) area unless they have that project in their long-range plan," Ort said. "So while the idea of the concept of the North Belt has been on Metroplan's long-range plan for a long time, they have not put a route into their long-range plan. Consequently we have not been able to move forward with the routes selected in the past."

The Metroplan board of directors is made up primarily of mayors and judges representing the cities and counties that make up the Little Rock-North Little Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area.

"Everybody needs to get their heads together on this and get consistent if we're going to move forward," McKenzie said. "If Sherwood had been unreasonable in their assertions, the board might have considered that, but they made a lot of sense. We basically are just looking for an alignment that best fits what the Highway Department wants to do and also best fits with Sherwood and its residents."

As We Speak

Currently, the AHTD is preparing a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, taking into consideration the public feedback it collected when new routes were made public in November.

The AHTD now has eliminated three of the possible alignments that were unveiled late last year and has tweaked another.

The route that was tweaked removed an interchange at Highway 107 near Sylvan Hills High School.

"If that route is selected, there would be an interchange just to the west at Batesville Pike and there would be one to the east close to Brockington Road and Highway 107," Ort said. "We feel like those two interchanges would adequately serve the area."

The scrapped alignments include a pair that ran directly through an area just south of Runyan Hills that is dotted with abandoned lead and silver mines.

"A bunch of holes in the ground is not a very good place to build a highway," Ort added.

The third route to hit the drawing room floor was a route that went to the extreme north of Gravel Ridge.

"We are continuing to evaluate the remaining lines, and we hope to have enough information to go back and have another public hearing before the end of this year," Ort said. "It's a very procedural process."

Post-Decision Planning

Aside from new housing and commercial developments in the Sherwood area that may be on or near proposed routes, obviously more right of way will need to be gained by the AHTD once a final route is chosen.

"When we select an alignment, the next step is the design phase when our engineers and so forth will translate that line from a map to a line on the ground," Ort said. "That's when we will be able to show property owners how individual properties will be affected. There may be a house right under the line, but in the design process they may be able to avoid that house."

Ort said once the AHTD enters the right-of-way phase, officials will begin appraising properties and determining fair market value.

"Then it's just like if you were buying a house," Ort said. "You can either accept, decline or counter that offer."

But ultimately, the AHTD would exercise eminent domain, and the courts would eventually decide on a fair price.

"We're a long way off from that," Ort said. "First and foremost, we need to determine an alignment that makes the most sense."

Though he declined to prognosticate, Ort did say the AHTD hopes to have more public hearings later this year and an alignment chosen sometime in 2007.

McKenzie is optimistic that one of the new routes will be a winner.

"The thing now is to finish the environmental study and then get a meeting of the minds and public comment," McKenzie said. "I think everybody is working real hard to do that, and I'm feeling much more optimistic now about this project than I have in quite some time."

• For a look at the North Belt freeway, click here.