Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Modest Proposal - aka 'lane-scaping'


Anything can happen as we learned Friday when the president signed the first highway bill in over two decades that extends more than 24 months. In those last two decades Congress has been kicking the can down the road as it relates to transportation. All the while our infrastructure continues to crumble. The Department of Transportation has said 32% of our roads are in poor or mediocre condition and the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. a D+ in infrastructure. I'll take the latter with a grain of salt as they have a bit of self-interest in their report but the larger point of neglect is well taken.

It don't grow on trees
One result of the new Highway Bill is that our fine state is expected to receive $50 million in additional funding for highways in the each of the next five years. 250 million unexpected dollars. Mana from heaven? Of course, there's a catch.

We must provide an approximate 20% match. Frankly, that seems fair to me. Skin in the game & all that. A 20% match of $50 million a year is $10 million a year (look at me, I promised only Tim would do math but here I go). I have a suggestion on where you can find some of the match we don't have:

DON'T BUILD ALL TEN LANES OF THE 30-CROSSING

Exactly how much money can be saved building out to only four (eight total) lanes vs. the five (ten total) AHTD would prefer? I can't seem to put my finger on the exact number of millions but whatever it is (and I suspect the number is high) can be moved to the 20% match required to give us that needed $10 million a year. This money can then be used for other, more needy & worthy projects as allowed by the legislation that created the Connecting Arkansas program. Or maybe with some creative accounting we could use some of the funding for the $900 million needed for the Great River Bridge, or any unexpected upgrades now that I-555 is 'official' or (and call me crazy!) transportation alternatives besides expanding roads.

For what it's worth, I think the three lanes we have work fine but I'm a realist. AH(T)D and the concrete lobby/flat earthers ARE going to get something out of this. They want all five lanes (each way). Moving it down to four would be a victory, if smaller than our preferred outcome. The unexpected additional funding provided by the new Highway Bill and its mandatory match seems like an opportunistic time to further our argument.

Logical arguments aren't winning the day, unfortunately. We've all tried to point out the vast amount of financial resources maintenance of the bridge lane expansion is going to require. As  $4 Billion maintenance estimates doesn't seem to scare anyone off.  Neither does the fact that Vehicle Miles Traveled continue to shrink for the ninth year in a row.  Nor is the fact that the gas tax wasn't indexed for inflation & thus isn't producing the equitable revenue as it did when it was set at 18.4 cents a gallon in 1993. The indexing concern gets a lot of lip service from all sides but no one realistically thinks the political climate for a 'tax increase' will exist in at least a decade.

Given these facts, maybe a better argument is for trimming the number of lanes (now forever called 'lanescaping' - trademark pending) and to use the allocated funds to match the manna of the Highway Bill.

"Hey! You guys just found out you need $20 million a year. I know where you can save money in both construction & maintenance cost all the while look like you're actually listening to what the public wants"

The Connecting Arkansas program is a 10 year tax passed in 2012. The time frame for the match fits. Sure, the Governor has his Blue Ribbon Highway Committee but he's said any proposal must be revenue neutral. This match is revenue neutral. It's so simple, I'm sure it will never happen.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Public Comment on 30 Crossing

Sunday, December 6 (tomorrow!) is the deadline to submit comments for Pubic Meeting Number 5 of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's 30 Crossing Project. Even if you've already submitted a comment I don't see any problem with submitting again if you have new stuff to say. Commenting ain't like voting, after all. Comment, and comment often! Go here to get a form. Send an email to info@30Crossing.com, and send snail mail to:

Connecting Arkansas Program
re: 30 Crossing Public Meeting
4701 Northshore Drive
North Little Rock, AR 72118

That email and physical address above go to staff at Garver Engineering, the company selected to manage the Connecting Arkansas Program for we the people. That is definitely the official way to make your voice be heard, but if you'd also like to send comments directly to the State, use these:

info@ahtd.ar.gov

Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department
P.O. Box 2261
Little Rock, AR 72203

Here's the comment I submitted:

To better serve the people of the State of Arkansas, to improve connectivity and mobility, to encourage economic development, to increase safety and resiliency, and to more effectively spend the taxpayers' money, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department should follow the steps below instead of proceeding with the current plan to build a 10-lane replacement for Interstate 30.

1. Build a bridge over the Arkansas River at or near the northern end of Chester Street in Little Rock. Designate the bridge as Highway 10 and make it four lanes in order to enable Amendment 91 money to be used. Terminate the bridge and Highway 10 at Riverfront Drive / Highway 100 in North Little Rock. Remove La Harpe Boulevard east of Chester Street from the State Highway System and allow the City of Little Rock to take it over.

 2. Designate Interstate 440 as Interstate 30 going east from its intersection with Interstate 530 south of downtown Little Rock. This new route for I-30 will still connect to I-40 less than six miles east of the current interchange and continue north to the 67/167 corridor allowing for that route’s future designation as I-30 all the way to Missouri.

3. Remove the approximately 3 miles of what is currently Interstate 30 between its intersection with Interstate 630 in Little Rock and Interstate 40 in North Little Rock from the Interstate Highway System altogether but continue to call it U.S. Highway 65/67/167.

4. Rename the approximately 1.5 miles of what is currently I-30 between its intersection with I-630 and the Fourche Creek bottoms as I-630. Upgrade the ramps to make 630 more seamless and continuous as it makes the curve to the south at MacArthur Park.

4.Alternative: Remove the entire 4.5 miles of I-30 currently passing through the downtowns of Little Rock and North Little Rock from the Interstate Highway System. Start planning today for the eventual removal of 630 from the system as well.

5. Replace the 65/67/167 bridge over the Arkansas River with a six lane bridge. If you must go with eight lanes, design those extra lanes to be easily converted to High-Occupancy Vehicle and/or High-Occupancy Toll and/or Transit use in the future. Explicitly plan for that on the front end and explain how the transition would happen.

6. Upgrade the North and South Interchanges as currently planned to minimize the number of lane changes that occur today.

7. Reevaluate the connections between the 65/67/167 corridor to the surrounding street grids on both sides of the river. By rerouting Highway 10 in Step 1 above and by removing the downtown section of I-30 from the Interstate Highway System in Step 3, many of the design struggles currently facing the 30 Crossing Project simply disappear:
-you’ll no longer have the Highway 10 / I-30 interchange problem;
-Little Rock’s downtown street grid will be able to function as a grid should without one particular route through it having to be arbitrarily treated as Highway 10;
-lowering the speed limit and the corresponding design speed in the 30 Crossing corridor will enable more connections to the local street grid instead of the Department being artificially constrained by trying to build on and off ramps to Interstate Highway standards;
-lowering the design speed will also address the Department’s Level of Service analysis (yes, I recognize that this is a little like moving the goal posts to solve a problem, but the current goal post placement is similarly arbitrary. Striving for 60 mph speed through some future predicted amount of traffic is not a necessity nor is it appropriate in a densely developed CBD.);
-furthermore, lowering the design speed will improve safety for road users;
-the new Highway 10 bridge between Chester and Highway 100 in NLR (a) will be easier to build because very little traffic will be impacted during its construction and because the Little Rock side can be built nearly at grade level, and (b) will provide traffic relief during the 65/67/167 bridge replacement.

US Highway 65/67/167 can still be a limited-access divided highway in the medium term, but by removing the constraints of Interstate designation a lot more design possibilities become available to the Department immediately. Then, as transportation technologies evolve in the future, the route’s eventual conversion to a street-level boulevard will be an easier transition to make.

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Here's some back of the envelope math that I did not include in my comment...

The projected cost for 30 Crossing is $600-ish million. That includes major interchange construction at 30/530/440, 630, Highway 10 / 2nd Street / etc., 30/40 in North Little Rock, and at the 40/67/167 interchange. It also includes replacing the river bridge, and from south to north: the bridges over Roosevelt Road, 17th Street East Broadway in NLR, the basketball courts, Bishop Lindsey Ave., 9th Street, the Union Pacific rail yard, 13th Street, Curtis Sykes, and 19th Street. Add to that the cost of replacing the Locust Street bridge, the numerous on and off ramps on both sides of the river, and the overpasses for cross streets. Plus, they'll have to buy some buildings and tear them down to expand the right-of-way.

Sticking with a 6-lane configuration as the Metroplan Board has reiterated as its preference numerous times over the years will likely result in massive savings. You've got a smaller bridge, easier interchange designs, narrower right-of-way, and just significantly less concrete and steel. How much? I don't have enough information to make much of an educated guess, but I would not be surprised if the price tag would be 1/2 to 2/3 of the $600 million number. That would be extremely useful information for the Department to provide as the public evaluates this whole proposal. But for now let's assume 2/3 as much. That's a $400 million cost with $200 million in savings. As someone once said, 'a hundred million here, a hundred million there... pretty soon we're talking about real money.'

Estimating the costs for a Chester Street bridge is a lot easier. The Broadway Bridge replacement just a few hundred feet downstream is budgeted to cost $98.4 million. There are many factors that would likely make a Chester Street / Highway 10 bridge much less expensive:
-the Broadway project includes demolishing and removing the present bridge. Chester would be strictly new-build;
-the Broadway project includes complicated and expensive efforts to minimize the impact on traffic flow during construction. Chester would connect mostly empty land to mostly empty land with no roadways in between.
-Broadway is nearly 2900 feet in length from Markham in Little Rock to West Broadway in North Little Rock. A new road at Chester would be about 2200 feet long from La Harpe to Riverfront, or 25% shorter than the Broadway project;
-Broadway included relocating a massive natural gas pipeline from the bridge to under the Arkansas River. Chester won't. (in the interest of full disclosure, I'm not sure if burying the pipeline was included in the $98 million number.)

On the flip side, new build at Chester will require additional environmental analysis, and construction costs have likely gone up since the Broadway bid was accepted. So, let's toss a yard dart over the house at a pile of numbers and estimate that the Chester bridge could be done for 25% less than Broadway. That's around $74 million.

So, the total proposal would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $475 million, possibly less. And, it would provide more route options for commuters, would not harm commercial and residential development happening in Little Rock and North Little Rock, would better prepare the region for inevitable changes in how we commute in the decades to come, would be cheaper to maintain, and would be significantly cheaper to replace again when that day comes.