Citizen and stakeholder participation in the planning of the expansion and widening of I-30 highway in Little Rock, Arkansas, United States resulted in substantial revisions to the initial plan.
Problems and Purpose
The cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock - in the U.S. state of Arkansas --and their surrounding areas are expected to increase in population by more than 220,000 between 2015 and 2040, with 75% of that growth occurring outside of Pulaski County (AHTD, 2015; CAP, n.d.). Furthermore, the wear and tear as well as constant traffic on these highways led to the need to widen and reconstruct roads to accommodate more vehicle and pedestrians (AHTD, 2015; CAP, n.d.). The “severe congestion on I-30 near downtown Little Rock and long commutes to the Central Business District could incentivize businesses to move out of downtown to suburbs” (CAP, n.d.) In other words, the poor condition of the roads and heavy vehicular traffic in downtown is impacting negatively on the economy of downtown has pushed businesses out of the central business district.
Another issue related to the I-30 Crossing Project is road safety. There is an urgent need for repairs to existing highways in order to keep citizens and businesses safe (Bennett, 2015). Congestion is an important factor. According to AHTD, on an average 126,000 vehicles pass over the Arkansas River Bridge, a portion of I-30. As a result, the bridge is weakened. The "lack of assembly" warrants the widening and reconstruction of I-30 and I-40 to include replacing and widening the Arkansas River Bridge roads (AHTD, 2015; Bennett, 2015; CAP, n.d.; Whites-Koditschek, 2018). Potential investors who want to invest in downtown Little Rock will shy away from doing so so if transportation is congested and roads are in poor conditions. They could view the area as a poor investment.
Background History and Context
In 2012, a constitutional provision was amended to enable Arkansans to assess and use one-half cent, ten years of sales tax to finance the I-30 Crossing Project, arguably the largest or ambitious ever construction project undertaken by city authorities (Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department [AHTD],2015). According to CAP and AHTD, the project when completed will serve five major interstates and one freeway. These include I-40, I-630, I-530 and interstate 440 [-440], Highway 67, within the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock respectively(AHTD, 2015; CAP,n.d.). The project seeks to widen the interstate in order to allow for free flow of vehicles and to reduce traffic congestion.
The project wants to widen and reconstruct portions of interstate 30 [I-30] and 40 [I-40] within Central Arkansas in order to improve navigation and travel times in “one of the most heavily used corridors in the state”(AHTD, 2015). However, a lawsuit has been filed to halt the planning and implementation processes of the I-30 Crossing Project. The lawsuit “seeks a judgement that spending sales-tax proceeds on the project is unconstitutional”(Brantley, 2018; Oman,2018). The lawsuit wants the Highway Commission “restrained and enjoined from continuing to disburse funds” on projects other than four-lane highways. They argue that the constitutional amendment approved four-lane highways not the eight lanes currently constructed. Furthemore, the lawsuit wants money spent on the project returned to the “bond account” created to hold the Connecting Arkansas Program monies (Brantley, 2018; Oman, 2018).
The plaintiffs include Richard Mason of El Dorado, Shelley Buonauito, and Sara B. Thompson - both of Fayetteville, Mary Weeks of Little Rock, and Verlon Abram of the Cleburne County Community of Wilburn (Brantley, 2018; Oman, 2018).
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The meetings were organized by Connecting Arkansas Program[CAP], an organization responsible for managing the I-30 Crossing Project. With Arkansas Highways and Transportation Department[AHTD] and Federal Highways Administration [FHWA] serving as support agencies, local community officials provided expertise and input to govern the project. Other stakeholders include the mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock, and a Pulaski County Judge (Bennett, 2015). The project is estimated to cost Arkansans $650,000,000, which is larger than the amount normally received by AHTD from the federal government for such projects (AHTD, 2015). As a result, AHTD is requesting $200,000,000 in Tiger Funds, $22,000,000 from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department’s [AHTD] Interstate Rehabilitation Program[IRP] and other funds from CAP to complete the project on schedule (AHTD, 2015).
There has been a statewide civic engagement and consultative meetings among these entities and the general public to gather ideas in order to arrive at appropriate designs for the project.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The participants were recruited through public meetings, workshops, coordinating meetings, and a public hearing, stakeholder advisory group meeting and Visioning Workshop for civic engagement. In addition to these methods, members of the Stakeholder Advisory Group [SA] were appointed by city mayors. The County judges provided local perspectives about the I-30 Crossing during the project development. Members include Jerome Green of Shorter College, Stephanie Streett of the Clinton Foundation, Sandra Brown of Verizon Arena Board and Bruce Moore, Little Rock City Manager. Participants included the general public, city mayors, county judges, FHWA, Metropolitan and AHTD (Bennett, 2015).
Since 2014, six public meetings, a town hall, and a public hearing have been held for the I-30 Crossing project. In all, those meetings have documented 2,138 attendees (Jon Hetzel, Personal Communication, October 23, 2018). The purpose of the meetings were to engage citizens and include the general public in the decision making processes of the I-30 Crossing Project. Specifically, the format for the public meetings and materials used in all the meetings utilized an open house format, which allowed participants to arrive, sign, view exhibits and handouts, ask questions, and provide comments (AHTD & CAP, 2014;Bennett, 2015). Displayed newspaper ads, direct mails, emails, hand delivered fliers, public service announcements, website, news release, community calendars, social media and stakeholder presentations were used to recruit participants to participate in all the public meetings (AHTD & CAP, 2014; Bennett, 2015).
Methods and Tools Used
It is instructive to note there was intermittent deliberations between the study teams, project partners and the general public in the decision making process of the I-30 Crossing Project. The public meetings, hearings and a town hall meeting served as a communication/dialogue point where the study team, project partners, experts and the general met to discuss and exchange ideas on the design and planning process of the I-30 Crossing project. Specifically, the general public viewed maps and exhibits, offered comments and as well as asked questions about the project design. In return, the study teams, project partners and experts offered explanations to concerns and suggestions raised by the general public.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
To ensure effective civic engagement and to gather comprehensive input in regards to the I-30 Crossing Project, CAP used the public meetings, public hearing, coordinating meetings, emails and an online portals [30crossing.com or ConnectingArkansasProgram.com] to engage citizens in the decision making process of the I-30 Crossing Project. The first and second public meetings were held on August 14, 2014 and April 16, 2015, in order to gather information from the general public on the proposed project (AHTD & CAP, 2014).
Public meeting #1:
It is important to note that the first two public meetings were identical in nature but held at different times and at different locations. The first public meeting was used to introduce the project designs and concepts to the general public. The attendees discussed the study area, alternative screening process and introduced the Planning and Environmental Linkages[PEL]. The gathering enabled the participants to discuss the Study Area Constraints and interrogate the purpose and needs of the projects. The first public meeting served as a precursor to all other meetings. The meeting included 190 members from the general public, 8 elected officials, and 5 media representatives. In all, 203 people attended the first two public meetings of the I-30 Crossing Project (Bennett, 2015, CAP, n.d.)
Public meeting #2:
The second public meeting was held to report back to the community on progress made regarding the PEL study and the project. Similar to the first public meeting, the second public meeting displayed “two interactive exhibit boards, one titled “Problems[Needs]” that asked attendees to list what problems or challenges they experience when traveling in the study area. And the other titled “Goals and Objectives” that inquired what improvements they would like to see in the study area (Connecting Arkansas Program[CAP],n.d.). The meeting generated more than 400 comments from the participants.
Public meeting #3 & #4:
The goal of the third and fourth public meetings were to report back to the community on the progress of the I-30 Crossing Project. According to Bennett, the meetings composed of members of the general public, twenty-three agencies, one elected official and four media representatives. The meetings were pivotal in the planning and designing process because they allowed the general public to evaluate, screen alternatives and provide further feedback on the transportation needs (Arkansas Highways and Transportation Department & Connecting Arkansas Program, 2014; Bennett, 2015; Connecting Arkansas Program, n.d.).
Public meeting #5:
Just like the other meetings, the fifth public meeting provided an update on the Planning and Environmental Linkages[PEL]. It was an “open house” meeting with no formal presentation. During the meeting, participants viewed maps and exhibits, asked questions, and offered comments about the proposed project (Connecting Arkansas Program, n.d.) Attendees of this meeting included 320 members from the general public, 30 agencies, 4 elected officials, 2 representative from the media, and 43 members from a study team (Bennett, 2015). The study team further evaluated the roadway, bridge and interchange concepts to widen I-30 to 10 lanes with a downtown collector/distributor system and evaluated an additional alternative to widen I-30 to 8 lanes (Bennett, 2015;Connecting Arkansas Program [CAP],n.d.)
Public meeting #6:
The sixth public meeting provided an update from the fifth public meeting. It started with a presentation followed by an “open house” which offered the public the opportunity to view maps and exhibits, ask questions, and offer comments about the proposed project (CAP, 2016). It concluded that the general public supported the need to expand the I-30 road in order to improve safety, address existing roadway deficiencies. and ultimately improve navigation in the project area (CAP, 2016.). In addition, the input gathered at the sixth public meeting will be used to further refine and development the alternatives (CAP, 2016).
The methodology involved coordination meetings with business owners, political representatives, community groups, and senior staff of local agencies who are adjacent to the project area (Bennett, 2015). Under “Coordination Meeting,” project partners, technical work group, stakeholder meetings, stakeholder advisory group, and visioning workshop were used to gather ideas and concerns about the I-30 Crossing Project. Attendees of “Coordination Meetings” included mayors, county judge, experts, and some appointed citizens. Under the project partners, regular meetings were held with city mayors, county judge, Federal Highway Administration[FHWA], Metropolitan and Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department [AHTD]. Each coordination meeting was deliberately constituted to discuss and analyze a particular issue. The project partners provided input and expertise to regulate the project, the stakeholder advisory group provided local perspective of areas of interest within the community during the planning process and the visioning workshop discussed how to preserve and improve historic and community resources (Bennett, 2015).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The influence, outcomes and effects of the meetings cannot be ignored. The project identified and brought together cities, experts, judges, mayors, city authorities, and other stakeholders to convene, discuss and offer practical solutions to solving the transportation challenges they currently faced. The structure of the regular meetings engendered dialogue that refined the proposed design of the project, The Design-Build, first of its kind in Arkansas (Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department [AHTD, 2015;Bennett,2015;Connecting Arkansas Program [CAP],n.d.). Initially, the project presented three basic scenarios of the road including 6, 8 collector/distributor roads with (complementary Alternatives) lanes,10 and 12 lanes highways respectively (Bennett, 2015). Through screening, the project adopted 8 lanes collector/distributor roads ( with complementary alternatives).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
In order to generate discourse, Connecting Arkansas Program[CAP], the body mandated to spearhead the I-30 Crossing Project, instituted a series of public meetings inviting the general public, interest groups, experts, and both state and federal agencies to deliberate on the proposed design for the I-30 Crossing Project. The meetings were held sequentially at separate locations with different personality profile. It is worthy to note that format was democratic, transparent, participatory and structured to accommodate divergent views. Not only did the meetings increased citizens participation in the decision-making process but also increased accountability of public officials. The congregation of interest groups, experts, the general public, and state and federal agencies was a characteristic of a democratic process in the sense that, the attendees of these meetings contributed immensely to the design, planning, and implementation process of the I-30 Crossing Project. Furthermore, the meetings acted as a conveyor belt because they help disseminated concerns and views about the project among the already mentioned groups and stakeholders. The last public meeting was held on Thursday, July 12, 2018. All the information concerning the 30-Crossing can found at [https://connectingarkansasprogram.com], a website dedicated to publishing all the information related to the I-30 Crossing Project.
Brantley, M. (2018). Lawsuit challenges Interstate 30 widening project as too wide for bond money. Retrieved from https://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2018/11/07/lawsuit-challenges-interstate-30-widening-project-as-too-wide-for-bond-money?fbclid=IwAR1TML-0u2EKJFCU6BpLczs-CKw4bpMotdRXCUl2VpVRhFdfOq9QmGpYpGY
Oman, N. (2018). Lawsuit challenges $631.7M I-30 project's use of sales-tax funds. Retrieved from https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2018/nov/08/suit-challenges-i-30-project-s-use-of-s/?news
Whites-Koditschek, S. (2018). I-30 Expansion Gets Final Presentation Before Arkansas Submits Plan To Feds. Retrieved from http://www.ualrpublicradio.org/post/i-30-expansion-gets-final-presentation-arkansas-submits-plan-feds
Arkansas Department of Transportation. (2018). I-30: Pulaski County - Connecting Arkansas Program. Retrieved from https://connectingarkansasprogram.com/corridors/9/i-30-pulaski-county/
Arkansas Highways & Transportation Department and Connecting Arkansas Program [AHTD] (2014). Planning and environmental linkages: Public meeting #1 summary and analysis report. Retrieved from https://connectingarkansasprogram.com/pdf/158/ca0602-june-2015-i-30-pel-study-public-meeting-1-summary/
Bennett, S.E. ( 2015). I-30 Corridor project overview: 30 crossing. Retrieved from https://www.arkansashighways.com/PowerPoints/2015/092115_LR_Midtown_Rotary.pdf
Connecting Arkansas Program [CAP] (n.d.). Know the facts: I-30: Know the facts about the proposed enhancements to one of the most traveled roads in Arkansas. Retrieved from https://connectingarkansasprogram.com/know-the-facts-i30/
Connecting Arkansas Program [CAP] (2015). Public Meeting #3: January 29, 2015, I-30 PEL study - Connecting Arkansas Program. Retrieved from https://connectingarkansasprogram.com/meetings/i-30-pulaski-county/58/january-public-involvement-i-30-planning-and-environmental-linkages-study/
Connecting Arkansas Program [CAP] (2016). Public meeting #6 summary. Retrieved from https://connectingarkansasprogram.com/meetings/i-30-pulaski-county/169/public-meeting-6-april-26-2016-30-crossing/
This case study was written by John Mensah, a graduate research assistant and a second year Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in this case study are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.