Is it time to cut losses and abandon plans for the North Belt Freeway? Or is the highway a key to economic growth for central Arkansas?
Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie at a June 30 Metroplan meeting called the considerations, "A puzzle with several moving parts."
He presented an array of options that included "pretend building" the North Belt Freeway for planning purposes, to actually saying "yes" to building the freeway and beginning the process by securing rights-of-way before development made the cost prohibitive.
If built, then the North Belt Freeway would connect Arkansas Highway 440, at the U.S. Highway 67/167 interchange, with Interstate 40 to the west. The cost of the project is estimated at $500 million and is planned for completion in 2025 to 2030.
Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher called for Metroplan to continue the work, saying future generations would look upon the cost as small when compared to the benefit.
Conway Mayor Tab Townsell said the project would enhance the prospects of attracting employers.
Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines agreed with North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays that economic growth would be limited, and said he had little hope the project would ever see the needed funding.
Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines said that he would vote to support the project, "But I don’t believe that it will ever get built anyway. There will not be any funding to do it.
"Say what you want to, that the Highway Department should have provided the money, but the bottom-line reality is that they have nothing to do with this."
After more than 60 years of fruitless efforts, it is time to find a productive alternative, he said.
Hays said that in terms of overall benefit, leaving the Belt Way "on" would be counterproductive by limiting other, more promising growth while also encouraging lawsuits.
Because such a large portion of the route goes through Camp Robinson and wetlands, there is limited opportunity for economic development, he said.
"I see other options with the money available," Hays said. "I certainly cannot support … leaving the North Belt on."
Fletcher said he sees the possibility that "We are shortchanging ourselves for generations to come by sitting here today talking about what are going to do. … What we are going to do is stagnate and curtail a lot of potential growth in that area.
"My concern is that we are going to kill [economic opportunity] by looking for a cheaper route."
He compared building the freeway to the city’s overpass and the question at the time of whether to spend more money to also straighten Main Street.
"I wish we’d spent the money years ago, it would have made more sense. … Ten years, 20 years from now we’ll look back and think that [the freeway] was a small cost," he said.
Townsell said he sees it as an issue of jobs. Easing the commute for employees and making the cities of the area easier to move between would make the area more attractive to employers, he said.
"It enhances the prospects of the region, as a whole," Townsell said.
While he recognizes the funding issues, "I am not ready to throw away an option that makes our region much stronger economically," he said.
McKenzie said that the North Belt Freeway is on the "fiscally constrained long-range transportation plan."
"This means there should be funding of $700-plus million dollars to build the thing. Unless the [AHTD] chooses some other priority for the money," he said. "Funding is on paper to build the North Belt Freeway … by 2025 or 2030."
Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman said that without a commitment for funding, planning could be pointless.
"It all looks good on paper, but we still do not have a commitment [for funds]," she said.
Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department director Scott Bennett said whichever choice is made means little to the department.
"The question is which $6 million on the [project] list do you want to take off?" he said.
Currently, there are two tracts where the right-of-way has been purchased, one on each side of [Arkansas Highway] 107.
Rights-of-way do not need to be purchased on Camp Robinson, but the National Guard unit would retain a voice on what is built on the land, Bennett said.
McKenzie recommended that the $6 million be drawn from the project to widen U.S. Highway 64 between Vilonia and Beebe.
There were no votes against the measure.
The decision came after a hour-long review of an analysis of the North Belt Freeway project. Metroplan traffic planner Casey Covington made the presentation.
The North Belt Freeway from U.S. 67/167 to the Interstate 430/I-40 interchange, is the only uncompleted freeway segment of the interstate system surrounding the Little Rock/North Little Rock area, Covington said.
This even though it has been included in regional plans, in some form since the 1940s, he said. While other freeways in central Arkansas area have been built, reconstructed and then widened since the North Belt was originally proposed, the only part of North Belt that has been built is the section connecting U.S. 67 with I-40 to the east, Covington said.
Covington said the analysis attempted to answer three questions: what are the impacts of not building the North Belt Freeway, which segments of the project have independent utility and should be considered first, and what alternatives are there to building the North Belt.
Not building the North Belt is likely to lead to increased roadway maintenance costs, increased traffic on already saturated highways, increased vehicle maintenance costs and increased costs associated with an expected increase of accidents, he said.
Segments of the North Belt that could be built independently are: U.S. 67 to Arkansas 107, estimated at $114 million; Arkansas 107 to Batesville Pike, at $47 million; Batesville Pike to Arkansas Highway 365, at about $81 million; and Arkansas 365 to I-40, at $105 million.
Each option would relieve other roads of some traffic, but not the total that a complete freeway would handle, Covington said.
Alternatives to the North Belt included widening existing roads and adding connections to provide a continuous route from U.S. 67 to I-40, or between Arkansas 107 to I-40; or increasing transit service, including construction of a rail corridor. The rail corridor would likely give limited results with a slower average speed than the proposed North Belt because of slower transit speeds through downtown Little Rock — and could be expected to serve 5-10 percent of the work trips in the corridor and a lower percent of non-work related trips.
"This alternative has similar funding concerns to that of the freeway, as funding for this transit service has not been identified and would likely require a new dedicated funding source for CATA," the analysis reported.