I-540 in Fort Smith, Van Buren set for $78 million rehab

story by Aric Mitchell

The major highway artery into Fort Smith that carries more than 50,000 cars a day will soon undergo a more than $78 million upgrade that will result in traffic congestion on the main Interstate corridor through the city.

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) announced Monday (Jan. 7) that the largest contract in the organization’s history is ready to begin construction.

As part of the 2011 Interstate Rehabilitation Program (IRP) passed by 80% of Arkansas voters, Kiewit Infrastructure South will begin work on seven miles of improvements to Interstate 540 (I-540) from Interstate 40 (I-40) to Highway 22.

The contract amount is set at $78.829 million and is expected to take 153 working days. AHTD District 4 Engineer Joe Shipman said the contract will begin in March with actual construction slated for a Jan. 21 launch and asked for the public’s patience while encouraging motorists to find alternate routes whenever possible.

AHTD expects the contract to be completed “sometime in April or May of 2014” or July 2014 at the latest.

And according to the terms of the contract, Kiewit has some incentive to finish early. Should the company beat its deadline, it could receive $30,000 per day in reimbursements with a maximum of 60 days.

Likewise, if the company goes over the 153-day deadline, each additional day – barring circumstances beyond the company’s control – will cost Kiewit an additional $30,000 per day.

Kiewit’s bid beat out all other bids by “a full year less,” Shipman said.

The construction contract surpassed the previous state record of $78.1 million for phase three of the Interstate 430 (I-430) to Interstate 630 (I-630) interchange improvement project.

Prior to that, the record was $57.3 million to widen I-40 in North Little Rock.

Construction will include “rubblizing” the existing I-540 lanes, Shipman said, and replacing nine bridges. It will also include the modification to four bridge structures.

The nine bridges, according to the AHTD fact sheet, will encompass “four pairs of bridges,” including the Highway 22 bridge at Rogers Avenue as well as those at Grand Avenue, Clayton Branch, and the Union Pacific Railroad Overpass.

Additionally, the Arkansas River Relief Bridge will be replaced, and modifications will occur to raise clearance over Highway 162 (in Van Buren) and to the two bridges carrying U.S. 64 over I-540 in Van Buren

Exit numbering between I-40 and Highway 22 will also be reversed, Shipman added, and “the new exit numbers will correspond with the numbering on I-540 north of I-40.”

One issue that will likely remain with the improvements in place are those related to beautification and design, particularly around the Kelly Highway exit.

In comments to The City Wire after Monday’s press conference, Shipman indicated that the city and the highway department have not “talked specifically” about improving this major entrance to Fort Smith.

“That’s up to the city if they want to take some of it on,” Shipman said.

Fort Smith Administrator Ray Gosack  said Monday that the city had agreed to police the Rogers Avenue interchange, but added “I don’t know of any other city with as many interchanges as Fort Smith has,” and that “the state highway department takes care of the other eight, but the complaint we hear is they don’t do a good job taking care of it.”

Gosack said the Rogers Avenue interchange alone costs the city $35,000 and that any further commitment “would have to come from the general fund, and that’s a decision to provide a new service so the board of directors would have to be involved.”

“It’s several hundred thousand dollars a year to properly mow, maintain, and keep litter picked up (on all nine interchanges). It’s money we’re spending on police and fire now, and I’m not going to divert it to do the state’s job,” Gosack said.