Highway Director Scott Bennett Talks 30 Crossing, Money for Roads

Highway Director Scott Bennett Talks 30 Crossing, Money for Roads
Highway Department Director Scott Bennett speak to the Little Rock Rotary Club on Tuesday. (Sarah Campbell)

The Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department is keeping its promises and has many irons in the fire, Director Scott Bennett told the Little Rock Rotary Club on Tuesday.

It has completed 30 projects involving 198 miles for $593 million since voters approved a bond issue for interstate rehabilitation in 2011, he said.

Construction is underway on 14 projects involving 71 miles. Those are expected to cost $487 million. Still planned are 39 projects involving 226 miles that are expected to cost $415 million.

Another program, funded by a half-cent sales tax voters approved in 2012, has seen three projects involving 12 miles completed for $88 million. Construction is underway for 10 projects involving 55 miles that are expected to cost $358 million. Another 23 projects involving 118 miles are planned for $1.27 billion.

The bond issue and the half-cent sales tax has allowed the department to pursue $3 billion in improvements to the state's roads, he said.

Funding Uncertain

Regarding federal funding for highways, Bennett said Congress has approved the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act to authorize funding through 2020. The act means a $250 million increase for Arkansas roads between the 2016 and 2020 fiscal years compared to the 2015 fiscal year.

But the money has to be appropriated each year, and the department is being funded at 2016 levels until the latest appropriation expires on April 28.

Bennett said that, although the Trump administration has talked about investing $1 trillion in infrastructure, a lack of details about the plan has caused uncertainty. He said he hopes to have details this summer.

Regarding state highway funding, Bennett expressed concern over whether the department would have enough money to match federal dollars.

Bennett noted that Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed a working group that released recommendations for how to pay for Arkansas roads. While Bennett said it's great that the group has set funding goals for the department, those goal come up $1 billion short in meeting Arkansas' needs over the next decade.

Lawmakers also adopted Hutchinson's plan to give 25 percent of future budget surplus to the Highway Department. But Bennett said that projected $48 million in proceeds is uncertain, and noted that the state's 2017 budget contains no surplus.

Bennett said any state highway funding plan will be decided by the people — whether by direct vote or through their legislators.

Project updates

Bennett said the deadline for the new Broadway Bridge to open to traffic is March 29.

He also said a 5.9-mile stretch of Highway 67/167 in Jacksonville is being widened, four bridges are being replaced and a new interchange is being built for $146.7 million. That project is expected to wrap up next year.

Scheduled work includes the widening of 2.3 miles between Jacksonville and Cabot, plus improvements to two interchanges. That is expected to cost $100 million.

Bennett said the department has rehabbed 2.8 miles of Interstate 440 for $33.8 million. Another 3.2 miles are under construction and set to be finished this year to the tune of $38.4 million.

He also said 17.6 miles of Highway 70 are being widened for $78.5 million. The project is set to be completed in late 2018. Another $1.2 million in intersection improvements to the highway at Colonel Glenn Road and Asher Avenue in Little Rock is planned. The city is paying for half of that, Bennett said.

The department is working on a $2.1 million, 2.2-mile overlay on Interstate 30. It's already completed $37.8 million in interchange improvements and has scheduled the widening of 5.4 miles plus another 2.2-mile overlay. That is expected to cost $128.4 million.

Other projects underway include more widening on I-630 and a new Hwy. 10 and I-430 ramp.

Plans for the 30 Crossing

Bennett also provided an update on the controversial 30 Crossing, a 6.9-mile project that includes I-30 from Interstate 530 North to I-40 and I-40 from I-30 to Hwy. 67/167. The project also involves Interstate 440 and Interstate 630, he said.

Right now, the department is working on environmental documents. It hopes to take comments on those and have a seventh public hearing on the project later this year. The plan could receive federal approval late this year or early next year, he said.

Plans are for the department to hire designers and contractors. He said the department wants to advertise the project this spring, select a team by the time the federal Highway Administration approves the project and to start construction in 2019.

There are two options for 30 Crossing: widening to eight general purpose lanes, or having six lanes plus a collector/distributor lane on each for a "split boulevard" effect. The latter allows drivers to use an adjacent road and travel at lower speeds over the river to downtown or elsewhere.

Bennett addressed concerns about having too many lanes in some places by saying several sections — Ninth to 10th Street, Sixth to Seventh Street and Fourth Street to Capitol Avenue — have more lanes than they appear to have when you count ramps, frontage roads and the like as lanes.

In every case, the proposals add either a few lanes or none to those that already exist in the right of way today, he said.

Bennett also spoke about the "split diamond" interchange the city favors that would combine the interchanges of Hwy. 10, Second, Fourth and Sixth Streets into one.

A lot of right of way would be freed up that way, opening up the opportunity for more improvements, he said.

He also said nine traffic lanes go under the I-30 bridge now. Plans call for reducing those to four and opening up space for development, Bennett said.