Region & State

Arkansas legislators OK construction of underground tunnel on Capitol grounds

The Arkansas State Capitol building in the evening in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday approved the construction of an underground tunnel between the state Capitol and a nearby building with meeting rooms and legislative offices

By HUNTER FIELD | Arkansas Advocate

The subsurface walkway to the Multi-Agency Complex — commonly referred to as “Big MAC” — has long been on the wishlists of some legislators and other state leaders, but it has always been shot down as a wasteful, unnecessary expense.

However, the more than $3.6 million project has garnered more support in recent months because it will be done in conjunction with an upgrade to the Capitol building’s air conditioning system, which will require digging up much of the same ground.

“I want to be on record: I don’t believe this is a proper expenditure of public money.”

— State Rep. Lane Jean (R-Magnolia)

The Multi-Agency Complex is about 50 yards down a hill west of the Capitol. It houses two committee meeting rooms and offices for legislators, Bureau of Legislative Research staff and some other state agencies.

Questions remain about whether the tunnel will be open to the public, and the plan has critics. 

“I’m going to vote against this,” House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, told members of the Arkansas Legislative Council Policy Making Subcommittee. 

“I want to be on record: I don’t believe this is a proper expenditure of public money.”

The committee gave final approval to the estimated $3.61 million construction contract with Little Rock-based Kinco Constructors, LLC in a split voice vote.

The project is expected to be completed by the start of 2025 in time for the Legislature’s regular legislative session, said Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage. Wardlaw is the co-chairman of the Arkansas Legislative Council, which approved the project last week.

Money was initially appropriated for the tunnel in 2009, but then-Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, refused to release the funds, saying the tunnel was unnecessary.

When lawmakers began again discussing the project in earnest earlier this year, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders expressed concerns about the costs and need for the tunnel to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Sanders Communications Director Alexa Henning on Tuesday said: “The General Assembly is an independent branch of government, and if legislators feel this is a needed upgrade to our Capitol that uses taxpayer dollars responsibly then they have the ability to move these improvements forward.”

The Legislative Council last week also granted an additional $4.5 million in spending authority to Secretary of State John Thurston for the installation of a new air handling system to cool the north end of the Capitol building.

That project will require digging between the Capitol and Multi-Agency Complex, and lawmakers have said the tunnel project will be cheaper if done at the same time.

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