On one level, the infrastructure of a city can be viewed simply as the sum of its streets, sidewalks, parks, and playgrounds.
But on a deeper, far more important level the built environment is about people and the opportunity they have to build a better life. Indeed, infrastructure is the literal foundation for much of what we all strive for: rewarding jobs, safe neighborhoods, quality education, strong communities, and good health.
In Little Rock, infrastructure is also an issue of equity – and it’s one where the city is failing both profoundly and unnecessarily. It doesn’t take keen powers of observation to notice that the quality of the infrastructure varies dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood. I’ve seen the differences personally as I’ve campaigned across the city. In certain neighborhoods, streets, sidewalks and potholes go unrepaired for years while other areas enjoy the many economic and quality of life benefits that quality infrastructure provides.
I have also heard how these disparities impact both the day-to-day lives of people and the sort of future they can imagine for themselves and their families. My vision is simple: to ensure every citizen in every neighborhood of Little Rock reaps the benefits of world-class infrastructure. Not only is infrastructure critical in providing the basic building blocks for economic growth and education, it can also serve as a connective tissue that binds communities and people together. Achieving this begins with using the city budget to ensure that every neighborhood has equally high-quality roads, sidewalks, parks, and drainage and sewer systems.
But we should also look upon infrastructure as something more than fulfilling the basic obligations of city government. Infrastructure also provides the opportunity to dream big about the kind of city we want to create and a chance to advance projects that bring us together. For example, I support a reimagining of War Memorial Park to not only update it to attract new events and economic opportunities, but also to create a Central Park that serves as the heart of Little Rock.
I understand that resources to address infrastructure needs are far from unlimited. Which is why my approach to establishing priorities will embrace objective analysis based on data, goal setting and transparency and, above all, citizen input and fairness. Though I will rely on data-driven studies and analysis to uncover each community’s unique infrastructure’s needs, below you will find a few of my main priorities.
A BAD, OLD IDEA
There are plenty of things from the 1970s that look pretty bad in retrospect: bell bottom jeans, platform shoes, and disco music, to name a few. On a more serious note, the 1970s was also a time when many American cities opted to build major interstates straight through their urban cores. Little Rock was part of that trend with the construction of I-630, a decision that divided our city and destroyed once thriving neighborhoods. Across the country, cities from Boston to San Francisco have realized what a profound mistake it was to build interstates through their downtowns and have worked hard to remove them.
Sadly, Little Rock is set to exacerbate its past mistakes by widening I-30. This is a decision that ignores powerful trends around transportation and threatens the tremendous progress that has been made in revitalizing our downtown core. While other cities are creating transportation options that emphasize walking, biking, ridesharing and public transportation, city leaders seem intent on doubling down on old thinking and ideas that have proven only to divide us.
It also happens to be a $680 million project that can be scaled back. The structural issues with the I-30 bridge can be addressed in ways that don’t involve widening I-30 and a recent cost-benefit analysis demonstrated that the project will shave only a few seconds off of commutes. Should we really be imperiling a more vibrant and sustainable downtown to support a negligibly improved commute for those who don’t even live in Little Rock?
PROACTIVE MAINTENANCE AND QUALITY CONTRACTING
Whether it’s your individual health or your home or car, minor problems that go ignored have a tendency to blossom into expensive emergencies.
The same is very much true for infrastructure. Which is why we need to embrace an ethos that emphasizes the smart, data-driven diagnoses of problems paired with proactive maintenance. For example, parts of our city’s sewer system are 100 years old. Potential health and economic crises become more and more likely each day if we continue to allow it to disintegrate. As mayor, I will ensure that we have updated sewer and drainage systems that are efficient and modern and environmentally sustainable.
We also need to do more to ensure we are getting the best quality contracting for repairs and other infrastructure work initiated by the city. This begins with city personnel: people with expertise and experience must be in place to oversee these projects to guarantee that taxpayers are benefitting from high-quality work and that the same repairs aren’t done over and over again.
STREETS, SIDEWALKS, AND PARKING
The majority of our fellow citizens experience infrastructure on a daily basis through their use of our city’s streets and sidewalks. These are also the areas where infrastructure inequities from neighborhood to neighborhood are most pronounced. The central and most immediate goal of my overall infrastructure plan will be to narrow these infrastructure disparities by devoting resources and attention to the areas with the most need.
But we also need to reimagine the purpose of our streets and sidewalks. While it’s true that well-maintained roadways are important for automobile traffic, I am also a strong believer in what’s known as the “complete streets” design approach. Instead of thinking of roads as the exclusive terrain of cars, the complete streets concept envisions streets that are safe and accessible to walkers, cyclists, bus riders as well as drivers. Ensuring that streets are inviting to everyone is a critical ingredient in an attractive, safe, and livable city. It’s also the foundation for the creative placemaking that has been transforming urban neighborhoods around the nation.
Unlike many cities around the country, too little parking is not a concern in Little Rock. In fact, we have the opposite problem: An overabundance of surface parking in downtown is both a huge waste of space and a barrier to the kind of smart development that encourages more people to live and work in the city center. Transitioning land devoted to parking to smarter uses that promote economic vitality and livability is a start. I will work hard with city departments and real estate developers to streamline permitting and create an environment that encourages downtown investment. This is as much about the overall economic health of the city as it is about creating a vibrant downtown. Infill development is a more efficient use of resources compared to continuously expanding outwards, which both stretches the ability of the city to serve citizens and makes it more expensive.
TRANSIT AND TRAILS
When companies and individuals think about relocating from one area of the country to another, quality of life issues are paramount. Happy employees love where they live, and part of what draws them and keeps them in a city is their access to walking and biking trails. Indeed, the river trail is as much an engine for job growth in Little Rock as it is a resource for recreation.
As mayor, I would work to create a comprehensive biking and walking trail system across the city. I also support having a bike share program and more dedicated bike lanes. There are numerous benefits to this plan. Many of the highly-skilled younger workers our companies want to attract to Little Rock don’t want to own cars and won’t consider living in a city where they have to have one.
But like other aspects of infrastructure, my approach to expanding bike lanes and a trail system would emphasize equity. Most trails today are only located in select parts of the city. This is both unfair and an economic issue. When you force people to travel by car, it is like a tax. We need to provide affordable options – from a robust public transit system to more bike lanes and sidewalks – for people to get around the city.
Across the country, cities are becoming leaders in clean energy and sustainability by setting aggressive goals to improve their stewardship of the earth’s precious resources. Dozens of cities have even made pledges to transition to 100 percent clean energy. Sadly, Little Rock is one of the only cities in the country that has not set any sustainability goals.
This lack of leadership is not just a failure of environmental stewardship. It’s also a missed opportunity to improve the city’s long-term financial health. The energy efficiency of city buildings is a prime example. How much money are we losing each year by not committing to making city-owned buildings as energy efficient as possible? As mayor, I would spearhead a cost-benefit analysis of retrofitting city buildings to achieve ambitious energy efficiency targets. Newly constructed city buildings should also adhere to high energy efficiency standards.
Besides achieving significant long-term financial savings for Little Rock taxpayers, supporting strong sustainability policies is a force for economic growth. The green building industry is burgeoning in Little Rock and the right mixture of policies and incentives can encourage its continuing growth.
CAPITALIZING ON OUR LOCATION
Little Rock has an enviable geographic location. Our position in the middle of the country and our access to two interstate highways, railways, the Arkansas River and a national airport means our businesses can serve customers throughout the U.S. Taking full advantage of our location means closely examining the use and potential of Little Rock’s port and airport. These assets can be an even stronger engine for economic growth than they already are. For example, as mayor I would make an aggressive push to get more direct flights to major cities; this is a critical issue for companies and people considering relocating here.
It’s a travesty that many parts of Little Rock do not have affordable broadband Internet access. This is not a trivial concern. Make no mistake, high-speed Internet is as critical a piece of quality infrastructure as newly-paved roads. Businesses won’t locate in places that lack high-speed Internet and children suffer when they don’t have this critical resource. As I’ve campaigned across the city, I have spoken to children sitting on curbs outside of schools so they can access Wi-Fi to do their homework. Going home to log on to broadband Internet is not an option.
In keeping with my mission to move Little Rock equitably into the 21st century, I will work with Internet service providers to expand the availability of affordable broadband access to all of our neighborhoods.