The much-anticipated Broadway Bridge construction project takes a major step forward in mid-September when bids are expected to be opened and a contractor selected.

"We will know a lot when we receive the bids and analyze the bids because different contractors may have a little bit different time frames," said Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. "As soon as we award the contract the contractor has to go to the steel company and get the steel fabricated. This will take a little bit of time."

Bennett said his "best guess right now" is that the bridge will probably be closed to traffic and imploded next summer. Construction is expected to take about two years.

The bulk of the project, estimated at $75 million to $100 million, is to be paid with 80 percent federal funds and 20 percent state funds. An additional $20 million will come from the Pulaski County Road and Bridge Fund to build the bridge’s two sets of arches, which will be in the shape of basket handles.

Because of the complexity of the project, contractors were given 12 weeks to prepare and submit bids, Bennett said.

An average of 25,000 vehicles cross the Broadway Bridge each day. The bridge, which opened to traffic in 1923, is "structurally sound but outdated," state traffic engineers have said.

Along with razing the current bridge and building a new one, plans also include a pedestrian/bicycle ramp from North Little Rock’s Riverfront Park to the new bridge, and improvements to the Broadway and Broadway intersection in front of Dickey-Stephens Park, home of the Arkansas Travelers.

Preliminary plans for the new Broadway Bridge include four 11-foot traffic lanes and a bicycle and pedestrian walkway. Garver LLC of North Little Rock is design consultant for the bridge, which is being paid for with federal bridge replacement aid and state matching funds.

During the two years of construction, traffic to and from Little Rock is expected to be heavy and plans to alleviate some of the congestion include rerouting traffic to the Main Street Bridge.

After crossing from Little Rock into North Little Rock, vehicles heading to the ballpark or Pike Avenue will follow signs leading them right on Washington Avenue and then right on Olive Street, before turning west on Riverfront Drive, which runs directly between the ballpark and the riverfront park. The two westbound lanes of Riverfront will remain open; just one lane eastbound will remain open because of construction of the bicycle/pedestrian ramp in the Riverfront Park.

If all goes as planned, said Nathan Hamilton, spokesman for the city of North Little Rock, fans attending the ballgames will be able to turn right into the public parking lot just west of the park, or continue down West Riverfront and loop back on West Broadway where other parking is available.

"The bottom line," Hamilton said, "is you were coming over one bridge, now you’ll be coming over another, and we’re going to make sure it’s easy to get to the ballpark.

While plans are on schedule to open bids on Sept. 17, Ort said there is some concern about Congress’ inability to pass a permanent federal highway bill.

Federal highway officials have said that the federal Highway Trust Fund is close to bankruptcy. Congress on the last day of July approved a measure designed to prevent a nearly 30 percent cut in federal highway and mass transit funding. The measure transferred $10 million from the general treasury to the Trust Fund. That is expected to keep the Trust Fund solvent through May.

At issue for lawmakers is whether to raise gasoline taxes to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. Congressional leaders said they want a long-term solution to the funding issue and hope that debate will be less politically charged after the November elections.

"We’re pleased that Congress has taken action to avoid the immediate reduction of reimbursements to the States," Ort said. "However, we are still concerned because of the relatively short duration of this stopgap measure. "As of now, the Broadway Bridge project is advertised with bids expected to be opened September 17th. We will continue to monitor the situation."

As state and local officials prepare for demolition of the Broadway Bridge and construction of a new one, plans are also being developed for a new Interstate 30 bridge and improvements along the I-30 corridor through Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Construction of that bridge, which handles about 125,000 vehicles a day according to the highway department, will not begin until after the new Broadway Bridge is completed and open.

"That is our plan," Bennett said, adding engineers would like to keep as much of the current I-30 bridge open to traffic when the new bridge is being built.

"There are three lanes in each direction now," he said. "The new bridge will have more lanes but the number of lanes is to be determined … We don’t know if that will be eight or 10 lanes with some auxiliary lanes to weave back and forth between interchanges or what. The whole planning and environmental process is underway now."

Bennett said he anticipated construction of a new bridge to take three years.

The $450 million project includes repairing and refurbishing the I-30 corridor, which covers nearly seven miles, stretching from I-530 to the south and to I-40 to the north and along I-40 to the interchange with U.S. 67/167 in North Little Rock.

The I-30 bridge and corridor project is being paid for with a statewide half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2012. Overall, 32 highway projects are to be funded by the temporary 10-year state sales tax. The tax is to finance $1.8 billion bond issues that will fund construction of a system of four-lane highways connect all parts of the state.

The various projects will cover about 200 miles of roads, Bennett said, adding the tax is expected to generate $230 million annually, with 70 percent – about $160 million – going to the AHTD and cities and counties splitting the remaining 30 percent.

Bennett said an environmental assessment is underway on the I-30 corridor project and that state traffic engineers recommended the bridge be replaced for a number of reasons, including its age. The bridge opened in 1950. Bennett also said the bridge was not constructed under current seismic regulations.

Refurbishing the existing bridge is not financially feasible, Bennett said, adding that if it were expanded the current concrete piers holding the bridge in the water would have to be encased with concrete and that would narrow the navigational channel.

"This is a major, major project, beyond just the bridge … it’s going to be a very, involved project," Bennett said. "We’re doing what we’re doing to make sure there’s a safe, efficient and structurally sound bridge to last for many, many years in the future."

"We know it’s going to be difficult to have to divert traffic for a couple of years, to change travel patterns, but just be patient and allow yourself a little more time to get where you are going," he said.

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