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I-30 Expansion Project Eyes December Finish After Delays, Complaints From BusinessesLock Icon

5 min read

Work remains to be done in widening a 5.5-mile stretch of Interstate 30 in Saline County, but Arkansas Department of Transportation officials say there may finally be cause for optimism about the much-maligned and delayed $187.3 million project.

The new expected completion date is Dec. 20, which should be welcome news for businesses and commuters dismayed by the traffic snarl the project continues to create,  now two years past its original expected finish.

Rex Vines

In February, after repeated delays and then damage from winter storms, ARDOT told the project’s contractor, Johnson Bros., that it was considering finding the company in default on its contract. ARDOT had already been fining the company $77,000 daily since work ran past an April 2023 deadline.

Finding a company in default is a transportation department’s big stick, and it was not a option considered lightly, said Rex Vines,  ARDOT’s chief engineer of operations. A default  would hurt the contractor’s reputation, but it also would set the project back as many as 90 days while a new contractor is found.

The last thing ARDOT wants was to delay the problematic project again, but Vines said the department had reached the end of its tether. In a Feb. 13 news release, ARDOT Executive Director Lorie Tudor said that formally recommending to the Arkansas Highway Commission that Johnson Bros. be found in default was “unprecedented territory for us.”

Johnson Bros, a subsidiary of Southland Holdings in Grapevine, Texas, had filed for an injunction Feb. 12 in Pulaski County Circuit Clerk to prevent ARDOT from issuing a default, which ARDOT had told the company it was recommending on Feb. 8. On Feb. 14, Johnson Bros. withdrew its injunction request after the two sides agreed to negotiate the issue.

While those negotiations are ongoing, Vines said work on the project has picked up significantly. Johnson Bros. is still losing $77,000 a day in road user costs, but work on the job site has noticeably improved, Vines said.

Johnson Bros. didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Since the original letter went out in February there has been a very noticeable increase in resources on the job. There has been quite a bit more work accomplished,” Vines said. “They have done much better in our estimation in addressing the work.”

The December completion date seems within reach, he said.

“Given what I have seen the last six weeks, I am more confident they will meet that goal,” Vines said. “However, we do have four years of history, but I do see a new level of commitment to completing the project that we had not seen until then.”

Delay Hurting Business

It’s about 25 miles from the I-30 work site to the front doors of Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs.

Wayne Smith, Oaklawn’s director, said business at the track and resort has dropped between 15% and 30% because of the interstate work. He said many of Oaklawn’s potential customers decide not to visit because fighting through the traffic snarl, especially at night, is such a headache.

“We felt a significant impact from a business perspective, but we have had problems for the past couple of years,” Smith said. “We saw a dramatic decrease over the last couple of years from our patrons not wanting to travel that stretch of highway at night, in particular on rainy days. The project has taken way too long and has impacted us over the last few years in a major way.

“A lot of our guests come from the west Little Rock market and North Little Rock market. The biggest issue, what our guests are saying, is the dangerous piece of that highway. People just don’t want to travel. It becomes a decision-making process, ‘Do I really want to drive to Oaklawn or Hot Springs?’”

Steve Arrison, the CEO of Visit Hot Springs, said he actually hears few complaints from area businesses because the project has been such a problem for so long many people feel like there’s no use in complaining anymore.

Traffic flows through a stretch of I-30 in Saline County where the delayed project has frustrated commuters and businesses. (Jason Burt)

“You can’t say FUBAR in Arkansas Business, but it has been a mess for years,” Arrison said. “People want to [drive] the easy way. I-30 has not been the easy way for us in years.

“It definitely has had a negative impact on our local economy. Hopefully, they have everything figured out.”

Gary James, president and CEO of the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce, said people are trying to be patient with the delays because they understand how important the widening of the interstate is.

“There is always pain coming when you’ve got to have good results,” James said. “We can’t wait until it is finished. The whole community has noticed the speed of the last six weeks has improved a lot.

“We know what it could look like and what it is going to look like. That is part of having a little bit of pain to deal with what it could be like for the next 10 to 20 years.”

Demanding Answers

Complaints from Hot Springs business leaders may have helped force ARDOT’s hand regarding the default decision. When winter storms caused numerous potholes on the stretch of interstate in question, Hot Springs business leaders had had enough, Smith said. (Vines said winter weather damaged roads statewide.)

Tudor met with community leaders at Oaklawn on Feb. 1 to discuss the project’s problems. Smith gave credit to ARDOT and Tudor for appearing in person to talk with the community.

(Google Maps)

“At some point, enough is enough and we needed concrete answers,” Smith said. “They kept telling us it was going to get done. It would be done by the first of 2023, then it became the middle of ’23, and then it became the end of ’23, and then we heard it wouldn’t be until the beginning of ’25. When that rain and snow and freezing temperatures hit this past [winter], we had just had enough. That’s why the community really banded together and demanded answers.”

Vines said there were problems on the project almost from the start with Johnson Bros. not having enough equipment and personnel on site, as well as not enough daily on-site management. ARDOT held weekly meetings and daily site visits, but there wasn’t much the department could do to speed up the work, Vines said.

“As we would bring these concerns up, they would have reasonable explanations,” Vines said. “There wasn’t anything until this time last year, a year and a half ago, when we started seeing that this was not going to go well.

“Even though we didn’t really see it coming, as we started to have some inklings that we had some problems, we would have brought [default] up as a possibility faster. That seems to be the catalyst that brought in the bigger resources. The threat of default and what that does to their bonding ability to their reputation honestly was what the catalyst was to bring in the needed resources.”

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