Monday, February 22, 2016

Drive-by Planning

Directors Kathy Webb and Ken Richardson introduced a resolution to the City Board (Little Rock's version of a city council) several months ago that would respectfully ask the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to reevaluate some options that many of us feel were not properly vetted earlier during the preliminary phases of deciding to do with the aging Interstate 30. It's about as mild as a resolution can be. It is not a statement of opposition to AHTD's 30 Crossing plan, but rather a recognition that this could be one of the most important decisions facing the region for a very long time and we need to make sure we get it right. For more info take a gander at the line-by-line deep dive I did over here.

The resolution should have sailed through unanimously, in my humble opinion. But, as is often the case when there's a difficult topic requiring a very public decision, quite a few of our elected City Directors seem to have their fingers up in the air trying to figure out if there's a prevailing direction to the political winds kicked up by this issue and now swirling inconsistently around them. I don't think it's a stretch to say that future elections could be partially decided by how all of this shakes out, and I doubt I'm the only one who's made that connection. The result? Delay, delay, delay. They've taken a couple of votes now to postpone voting on the resolution itself with the most recent delay pushing a decision off to April. The City has also recently contracted with a planning consultant to look at downtown and 30 Crossing, so I wouldn't be surprised if the decision on Webb and Richardson's resolution gets pushed even further back in the calendar pending the results of the consultant's work. 

I see three possible hopes that might be motivating the Directors' efforts to keep kicking the can down the road: 
1. We the people will just get bored with the whole thing and move on to adopting sprawls of abandoned marmot pups or something else to make the world a better place.
2. The highway lobby's marketing arm will p.r. their way to an overwhelming voice of support for business-as-usual from the quiet masses who haven't been paying attention yet.  
3. Someone will come up with a compromise that will appease enough people that the opposition will  simply evaporate. Resistance needs a critical mass, and defeating it doesn't require convincing everybody. 

All three of those are real possibilities, and I understand the desire of elected officials not wanting to take a stand on controversial issues if they can avoid it. I don't like it, but I get it. 

Out of the three, the last one seems to be something that Mayor Mark Stodola (up for reelection in 2018, btw) has tried to latch onto. News came a couple of weeks ago that he spent a big chunk of time riding around downtown Little Rock with Jerry Holder, the engineer at Garver who's in charge of shepherding this project through the multi-year planning process. Apparently around the time the classic rock station looped back to the beginning of its playlist again, Stodola and Holder agreed that moving the Highway 10 / 2nd Street interchange further south warranted a closer look. Stodola holds a little more sway in the big scheme of things than others on the City Board because he also holds a voting position on the Metroplan Board of Directors, a body that will ultimately have to sign off on whatever AHTD decides to move forward into the concrete-pouring stage.

I'm glad that there is some dialog occurring with movement happening on the AHTD/Garver side of things. However, the Mayor's little drive-about with Jerry is emblematic of precisely how we've spent the last 50+ years working ourselves into the transportation pickle in which we now find ourselves. When you design for traffic you get traffic, and when you're evaluating the design from inside a car it's difficult to see the world we've created from any other perspective than that of a driver. Instead of driving around or just looking at maps and traffic counts, everyone with a hand in shaping this project needs to spend time on the ground walking around the neighborhoods on both sides of I-30. They need to see what it's like walking from the Holiday Inn Presidential to Lost Forty Brewing during the evening rush. They need to walk from the Comfort Inn to the Arts Center. Stroll from Eastview Terrace Apartments to MacArthur Park, Argenta's Main Street to the forgotten commercial node on East Washington in NLR, hop on a bike and ride from the Creative Corridor to Berg & Sons Machine Shop or Mizell Signs, ride a bike from Cumberland Manor to Mann Magnet or Booker Arts or Rockefeller in time for school to start in LR, or from Melrose Circle to the 7th Street Elementary in NLR, walk from Our House to the East Roosevelt Kroger. And so on. All of these trips are absolutely miserable today precisely because of Interstate 30's imposing, people-unfriendly presence. Making the freeway even wider will only exacerbate its anti-city, wealth diluting essence.

The negative externalities of urban freeways are undeniable, so over the next few months we will be presented with a sidewalk here, a new tree there, and other similar attempts at greenwashing as an 8 or 10-lane option further solidifies in the AHTD planning apparatus. Moving the main downtown interchange as Stodola proposes would be a huge alteration to the original plan, but the overall picture would still the same: an enlarged, high-speed, grade-separated limited-access highway running right through the heart of the capital city of Arkansas. 

And this, this moment when the powers-that-be start touting some half measures of a compromise, is when I hope the merry band of loosely affiliated friendly agitators fighting 30 Crossing stands strong. There are going to be countless little tweaks that will be brought up over the next few months with people saying "Hey, looky here! We're listening to public input! By golly, we moved this off ramp two whole blocks." Or, "Wow, aren't these new light pole designs awesome?! We were going to go with something plain, but because of our solemn responsibility to respect the public we've made them bold and iconic." And, "Check out this cool natural tree motif we're going to stamp into the concrete bridge supports! The students in the free after-school arts program for underprivileged kids designed it! You support kids' artwork, right? Right?! Well, then how can you be against 30 Crossing?" 

You get the idea. 

Most of the folks fighting this boondoggle of a project want something fundamentally different from a 10-lane freeway dividing the heart of downtown, and not just a minor variation on a theme. We, along with countless others around the country, recognize that urban freeways were generally a mistake from the beginning, and not learning from that mistake would be a travesty. We recognize that tomorrow's technology is very likely to upend our relatively new single-occupancy vehicle commuting paradigm in dramatic and unpredictable ways. We recognize that putting all of our transportation eggs in the same outdated basket is bad public policy. We recognize that the existence of large urban freeways is in many ways responsible for the very congestion that needs to now be 'solved'. We recognize that AHTD's insistence that they can only do highways is simply a policy choice that can be changed by just updating a few words on a few pieces of paper down at the State Capitol.

We recognize that just because things are a certain way doesn't mean they should be. 

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