Metroplan's Tab Townsell Explains How Building Bridges Not Always On Track

Metroplan's Tab Townsell Explains How Building Bridges Not Always On Track
Tab Townsell, executive director of Metroplan (Kerry Prichard)

Tab Townsell was mayor of Conway, his hometown, for 18 years before becoming executive director of Metroplan in January. He was on the executive committee of the Arkansas Municipal League from 2000 to 2016 and was the league’s president in 2007.

As mayor, he stressed quality of life issues and championed revitalization in downtown Conway. Other priorities included parks, biking and walking trails, building a new airport and improving traffic, in part with 19 modern roundabouts.

Townsell earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Central Arkansas and an MBA in 1986 from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. At UCA, he was student body president, student body treasurer and president of his fraternity, Sigma Tau Gamma.

Tab Townsell was a leader in college before becoming Conway’s longest-serving mayor, but he says he “wasn’t much in high school.”

What exactly is Metroplan, and what is its mission?
Metroplan is the official Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) of the Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). This is a mouthful of federal jargon. In plain terms, Metroplan is the central Arkansas area regional transportation planning agency with a federally required role in transportation planning and project approval. Please note, that is planning and authorization but very little money. Also remember, Metroplan is not the staff; Metroplan is the member jurisdictions collectively — the cities and counties of our area.

What are the thorniest issues when trying to get multiple jurisdictions on the same page?
The thorniest issues are aligning the self-interests of the member jurisdictions. Each city and county maintains the right to define and pursue its self-interest. All politics is local, and regional cooperation and planning must take into consideration each jurisdiction’s separate interests.

Planners have recommended a new north-south corridor and bridge at Chester Street in Little Rock crossing to North Little Rock, to ease traffic on Interstate 30. Why isn’t this happening?
There are a couple of reasons the Chester Street Bridge has been a nonstarter. The Transportation Department states that it would not be its project and will not fund it. Little Rock and North Little Rock have also gone on record saying they don’t have the $80 million to $100 million needed to build it. No money, no bridge.

Then there is the issue of benefit. It would only divert about 4 percent of the traffic off the I-30 Bridge. What it diverts would then be immediately backfilled from another river crossing. In short, the big bridge serves regional traffic. The smaller bridge could assist primarily with local traffic.

Commuters want faster ways to work, hence the I-30 widening project, but urban dwellers may be more concerned about aesthetics and quality of life. What will be your approach?
The different parts of the region certainly have their own purposes and interests. But differences tend to be short term. Long term, our interests converge. We are one region. Viewed from the outside, our region is one market for jobs, shopping, and economic opportunity. It has one reputation for safety, for education and for quality of life. What is good for one is good for all in the long run.

They say that mistakes sometimes teach us the greatest lessons. What was your biggest mistake as Conway mayor, and what did you learn from it?
Taking the long view, my biggest mistake was to not push a stronger, more efficient and sustainable development pattern for Conway. While there are many changes I would make if given another chance, not creating the opportunities in the city ordinances for a denser, more walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly city and not incenting these initiatives in private development would be my greatest regret. The built environment stays around a long time.