Against Opposition, Arkansas Highways Expand

Although many local activists and officials oppose the trend, Arkansas state planners are considering major highway expansions in the Little Rock area. The state's highway department has demonstrated a pro-car, pro-suburb agenda.
April 28, 2016, 11am PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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Alana Semuels reports on one region of the country that is "doubling down" on highway expansions, mostly serving a suburban population. One project cuts close to downtown Little Rock. "This is happening at a time when a revitalization of the River Market district, located on the Arkansas River just beside the highway, is starting to take hold." 

Throughout the Sun Belt, state highway departments have been more than willing to finance major expansion projects. "Colorado wants to spend $1.2 billion to widen I-70 in Denver. Louisville is planning to widen I-71 to six lanes, from four. Iowa is widening U.S. 20 to four lanes. And in Birmingham, the state of Alabama wants to widen I-20/59, which passes right through the city center."

However, research on the issue warns against expanding highways to ease traffic. "When Texas expanded the Katy Freeway in Houston to 26 lanes to reduce congestion, for example, travel times increased by 30 percent in the morning and 55 percent in the evening."

Ingrained governmental structures can also contribute to a highways-first attitude on the state level. "Highway departments in many states operate as independent fiefdoms with little oversight or accountability [...] The [Arkansas] Highway Department is governed by an appointed commission created in the 1950s as a response to corruption. Members serve 10-year terms."

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Published on Monday, March 28, 2016 in The Atlantic
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