Construction can begin on Arkansas’s largest-ever transportation project, and its first design-build undertaking, after a federal judge dismissed local residents’ request to halt work on the $1-billion upgrade of Interstate-30 in Little Rock and North Little Rock.

U.S. District Court Judge James Moody in Little Rock dismissed permanent and temporary injunctions requested by neighborhood associations. They claimed the Arkansas Dept. of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration had not followed federal environmental regulations in its project review and permit.

Pre-construction activities are set to begin Sept. 18 with construction beginning in October once all permits are received, Rita Looney, chief counsel for the state DOT said. The agency and FHWA "took a hard look at the environmental impacts for the project, and the court agreed,” she told ENR.

In the Sept. 3 order, Moody said the plaintiffs failed to establish that they will likely suffer irreparable harm if work begins as planned and said they are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their lawsuit against the project.

A joint venture of contractors Kiewit and Massman Construction was awarded the design-build contract in January 2019 and received a notice to proceed this past January.  Six teams submitted proposals for the project, say media reports. 

Plaintiffs are disappointed in the ruling. “With all due respect to the court, we believe that the decision is flawed and we are considering an appeal,” said Richard Mays, attorney for the neighborhood groups.  

The 30 Crossing project includes redesign, reconstruction and widening from six lanes to 10 about 7.3 miles of I-30 and I-40 through the two cities, and replacing the bridge across the Arkansas River.

The project has had a rough start. Planning began in 2014 with a $631.7 budget. But Kiewit-Massman estimated the price to be closer to $1 billion. Prices from a total of six bidders ranged from $967 million to $1.1 billion, the judge said in the order.

In December 2019, the state DOT and Kiewit-Massman agreed to a reduction in scope to keep the project on budget. Kiewit and the state did not respond to a request for information about the changes in scope.

The area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization recently approved an additional $350 million for the project, provided voters in November make permanent a 2012 temporary half-cent sales tax dedicated to highways. Without approval, the project may have to be built in phases, the state agency said. It requested the increase in March to make funding available for the Kiewit-Massman contract and to avoid any possible need to recompete it.

An environmental assessment was performed for the project but the local groups claimed in their request for a permanent injunction that a more in-depth environmental impact statement is required for such a large project that affects environmental quality.

The groups argued that the lack of funds to complete the project as proposed “renders the possible effects of the project on the human environment to be highly uncertain and risky.”

The groups also argued that since the project was the largest and most ambitious the agency has ever undertaken, with an approach never before executed in the state, and the first to use the planning and environmental linkage study process to determine possible alternatives that could be used in the NEPA review, “it seems foolhardy to risk the waste of more than $1 billion on unresolved problems” that could be settled with an environmental impact statement.

The project had been set to start construction next year and be completed in 2024.