Representatives from Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri gathered in Barling on Thursday (Aug. 29) to discuss the status of the Interstate 49 project that will eventually link the Gulf Coast with Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada.
The meeting, held at the new Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) District 4 Headquarters adjacent to the section of I-49 under construction at Chaffee Crossing, focused heavily on where the project stands and ways to fund the remaining portions of the project. The largest unfinished section, a 170-mile stretch from south of Fort Smith to Texarkana, Ark., is estimated to cost $2.5 billion.
Dan Salisbury, the assistant director of the southwest district of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDoT), spoke about the progress made by his state, which recently opened a large stretch of I-49 from Kansas City to just six miles north of the Arkansas state line in Pineville, Mo.
Salisbury said his state had made progress to take the interstate as far as they had, though funding to complete the state's I-49 corridor in a section known as the Bella Vista Bypass was not currently in place.
"And today, we have the plans done. They've been done for many years. We would have to go in and refresh those plans, but that would be a relatively minor task. We purchased the land but we have one challenge," he said. "Considering all the work we did north of there, we no longer have enough money to complete that. So at this time, we can't commit to a schedule in Missouri to do that."
The shortfall in funding amounts to about $25 million, though he said Missouri transportation officials were working to find a funding source to complete the state's portion of the project.
TOLL ROAD STUDY
AHTD Public Information Officer Randy Ort said while Missouri was struggling to secure the funding necessary to finish its portion of the Bella Vista Bypass, Arkansas had secured enough to install two of the highway's planned four lanes. To complete the other four lanes, AHTD would have to figure out a way to raise an additional $50 million.
One way to possibly pay for the Arkansas portion of not only the Bella Vista Bypass, but other sections of the interstate, would be the creation of Arkansas' first ever toll road, which Ort said was being studied for feasibility.
"It's a candidate to be a toll road, but we need to get the results of this study," he said. "Another reason the results of this study are so important, no only will that show us whether or not it's feasible as a toll road, it will provide us a great amount of data and information as to what it will take to complete the final two lanes to make it the ultimate four lanes that both states want. So by getting the results of the toll study, we think there is a possibility, and a realistic possibility, whether it's a toll road or not a toll road that we will be able to complete this as a four lane facility in the time frame that we committed to only committed to build the two lanes."
The construction of the Bella Vista Bypass, Ort said, is definitely funded for the two lanes as part of nearly $600 million to be spent on transportation infrastructure upgrades in Benton and Washington Counties in the next several years using funds from a half cent sales tax on diesel fuel passed by voters in November 2012. In Northwest Arkansas, those funds will be used not only to build the two lanes of the Bella Vista Bypass but also to add additional lanes along the I-540 corridor, which will eventually be part of I-49 should the project ever be completed.
Attorney Jack Williams of the Williams and Anderson Law Firm was also present to discuss the use of Regional Mobility Authorities as avenues local city and county governments could use to funnel money to completing the projects in their respective areas.
By forming local mobility authorities, Williams, an expert in mobility authorities, said it would help the state secure federal grants and other funding mechanisms.
"A project like this is likely to require federal funding and when you apply for federal funding, the state transportation department can also have some kind of partnership or support. Local government, it very much helps move you up the latter of qualifying for some of this grant funds. Grant funds aren't always there, but sometimes they are and as always, there's a lot of candidates for it."
One such authority is already in existence along the I-49 route – the Northwest Arkansas Regional Mobility Authority.
On the Authority's website, it makes clear that it does not replace federal or state funding, but instead supplements funding. The website also states that all projects, by state law, "must be approved by voters."
FEDERAL FUNDING OPTIONS
As part of the conference, the I-49 International Coalition also presented a webinar that focused on innovative federal finance options.
One of the options mentioned was GARVEE Bonds (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles), which allows a state to finance a highway project for a term "for a debt instrument that has a pledge of future Title 23 Federal-aid funding," according to the Federal Highway Administration's website.
"GARVEEs enable a state to accelerate construction timelines and spread the cost of a transportation facility over its useful life rather than just the construction period. The use of GARVEEs expands access to capital markets as an alternative or in addition to potential general obligation or revenue bonding capabilities. The upfront monetization benefit of these techniques needs to be weighed against consuming a portion of future years' receivables to pay debt service. This approach is appropriate for large, long-lived, non-revenue generating assets."
Other ideas included the implementation of Tax Increment Finance Districts (TIFs), which would collect taxes in a designated area to be used for a specific project, such as highway funding, and possibly creating a public-private partnership to share in the cost of construction and upkeep of a given highway.
Following the meeting, Arkansas House Transportation Committee member David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, said it was important to find alternative methods, such as those presented today, in order to ensure not only easier transportation between north and south Arkansas, but also to create economic development across the region and nation.
"What we're talking about is from an economic development standpoint – combined with the east-west traffic we have on Interstate 40, plus having New Orleans to Winnipeg north to south coming straight down our corridor. Just think of the number of people that would be passing through there, even if only stopping once to get gas, staying a night in a hotel."
Gard Wayt, the Shreveport, La.-based executive director of the I-49 International Coalition, said having officials like Whitaker and others from the city and county level on up to the federal level participate in today's meeting was designed to get all sides thinking and working together to figure out how to finish I-49 at an accelerated rate, a rate at which the interstate could be done in less than a decade.
"If I were going to be safe, I'd say (the Arkansas portion would be complete in) 10 years," Wayt said. "But what we're trying to do is cut that in half."