Drivers making their way from Alma to Benton County are going to have to get used to hopping on Interstate 49 starting next week.
According to District 4 Engineer Chad Adams of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, the federal government has given the AHTD approval to designate the stretch of interstate known as I-540 in Benton, Crawford and Washington Counties as I-49.
The total cost of replacing about 700 signs along the interstate will be about $66,800, Adams confirmed.
The section of interstate, completed and opened for traffic in 1999, was originally supposed to be known as I-49 by request of state officials as plans called for extending what was then just an interstate in Louisiana from Shreveport, La., to Kansas City, Mo.
Adams said for unknown reasons the request was denied, though he said the approval allowing for the designation change next week came as a surprise. It was so surprising, in fact, that new interstate signs installed within the last month along the stretch of I-540 under rehabilitation in Van Buren show the right lane of the interstate merging onto I-40 with the designation of I-540/I-40 and the cities of Fayetteville and Little Rock on the sign.
With the designation change, Adams said the brand new sign at the I-540/I-40 interchange will now have to be taken down and remade to show the stretch of I-540 through Sebastian and Crawford Counties ending at I-40, with the cities of Memphis and Little Rock replacing the previous sign.
As for the extra cost to change the sign again, that's anybody's guess right now, according to Adams.
"What we're going to do is a change order on the current construction job to basically compensate the contractor to take the sign down, modify it and put it back up. I think the resident engineer is still getting a price from the contractor on that. I don't know the final cost."
But he emphasized that the new sign will not be discarded.
"The sign itself will still be used. They just have to redo the sign. The sheeting itself can still be used."
In addition to the problem associated with the sign at the I-540/I-40 interchange, Adams said plans to renumber the section of I-540 in Crawford and Sebastian Counties to align with numbering installed in 1999 along the newer stretch of I-540 will now be no more.
That means signs installed without numbers along the Crawford and Sebastian County stretch will finally receive numbers that will remain the same, instead of changing.
"The reason it was numbered that way years ago was because it wasn't a continuous route," he said of the original numbering of I-540 in the 1970s. "With that, the way standard numbering goes for exits is you start at the interstate. It's considered a spur off of the interstate. You start at the zero at the interstate and go from there. When we built 540 north to Fayetteville, that changed. Since it was a continuous route, this was a perfect opportunity to fix that. But then we got the change, so now we're back to where we were before I-540 north existed."
While the last minute change is frustrating after a year and a half of planning for new signs and numbering along the older section of I-540, Adams said he would not have made different decisions.
"We were moving forward and our decisions were based on the information we had at the time," he said. "But the information changed. That's just life. It's not like we made the wrong decision. The facts changed."
In addition to stretch from Alma to Bella Vista being designated I-49, Adams said planned sections of the interstate at Chaffee Crossing, as well as the Bella Vista Bypass, will be known as Future I-49 until those sections can be joined with the remainder of the interstate.
"As far as how they are going to do it, with a sign above or below (the I-49 sign), I'm not sure how that's going to look."