Hell of a Highway, Highway to Hell: I-30 and I-630

ACORN Ideas and Issues
A rendering of an expanded I-30 corridor in downtown Little Rock. Credit AHTD

Little Rock     Every once in a while some self-delusion seeps in, no matter how hard you try to prevent it. A couple years ago the Arkansas Times wrote a cover story that essentially was a 35-year later vindication of the huge battles ACORN had fought and led in Little Rock to try to block and modify what was called then the Wilbur Mills Expressway and more recently has become known as I-630. Many observers and opponents were quoted begrudgingly conceding that the points ACORN had made in the early and mid-1970’s about how the expressway would divide the city economically and racially had been borne out despite the concessions we had won in our organizing and legal battles. For a second I might have been lured into thinking, hey, lessons were learned, it’s was all worth it.

But, no, the real lesson of highway construction battles teaches something more along the lines of the need for “eternal vigilance” and the meaning of “permanent war” in organizing. I thought of this often while interviewing Arkansas State Representative Warwick Sabin on Wade’s World. Sabin represents downtown Little Rock and some of its neighborhoods and has come out clearly in opposition to the Arkansas Highway Department’s $700 million proposal to widen I-30 from six to ten lanes. The ever unaccountable highway czars also reminded me of legendary ACORN leader and former Pulaski County elected Justice of the Peace, Bill Whipple’s, often repeated line about the definition of a rationale, as “nothing but a lie in the skin of a reason.” Sabin, the AHD, and many others concede that there needs to be some upgrades to the I-30 bridge going across the Arkansas River, similar to the infrastructure improvement demands of a 50-60 year old system nationally reflected in the half-funded highway bill Congress just passed. The highway team is trying to platform the working consensus on the bridge into a massive highway construction project that starts with widening lanes on I-30, but is almost universally conceded to just be the camel’s nose under the tent triggering a domino effect that would eventually force widening of other highways pushing exurban sprawl northeast toward Cabot and eventually forcing a widening of the I-630 Wilbur Mills from I-30 out west as well. I suggested to Sabin that perhaps the folks in Cabot and beyond should build their own pig trails down here and leave Little Rock out of it.

These mid-20th century ways of looking at urban cores and urban development have been discredited for decades, but here they are again front and center in the 21st century. Sabin made the case earlier and on the radio about the need to listen to the voices of urban planners and to look at alternative systems being developed not just in the San Francisco-Portland-Seattle biosphere, but in neighboring Texas for goodness sakes. The Pandora’s Box of horrors this expansion would cause seems endless: the erosion of riverfront and downtown development of recent years including the city’s biggest tourist attraction, the Clinton Presidential Library, the increased isolation of the eastern part of the city and wider divisions by race and class, the isolation of the newly proposed Tech Center, the accelerated urban sprawl, and the list goes on and on. Meanwhile the feds have passed on participation in the funding and no one in their right mind believes that $700 million reflects a real price. Somehow saving 5 to 8 minutes out of a so-called rush hour that might not be even recognized as a minor delay in a larger city doesn’t seem like a priority outside of the Highway Department’s headquarters and maybe the University of Arkansas Medical Center which for some unfathomable reason thinks it should have its own separate exit off I-630, but sure doesn’t want to pay for it either.

The Mayor of Little Rock has an important voice on this, but he’s not saying yet. Metroplan, the regional planning arm, in their plan has argued for a limit on lanes, so the fight is on there to hold the line. The Highway Department being a highway department in a Southern state, which once defined near absolute power in the 20th century, still operates in the same unaccountable authoritarian with its small team of five appointed czars, so they can also choose to ignore planners, mayors, and everyone else. New gubernatorial appointments come up in 2016 and 2017 which could be battlegrounds, and the mayor’s election in 2018 might also pivot around this issue.

Permanent war? It’s on! No justice, no peace!