story by Kim Souza
Anyone regularly traveling through Bella Vista in the morning or evening into Bentonville knows more access roads are needed to connect the town of nearly 30,000 residents to the rest of Northwest Arkansas. State and local highway officials are working on such connections.
Travelers will soon have a roundabout to maneuver as they enter Bella Vista from Walton Boulevard near the U.S. 71 Exit 93 interchange. The roundabout is slated for construction this year and is designed to funnel traffic from the southern entrance of the Bella Vista Bypass toward U.S. 71 or N. Walton Boulevard. This roundabout was the best way engineers believed they could control the traffic without installing another red light.
The Bella Vista Bypass on the Arkansas side of the state line is expected to take about 4,000 cars off of U.S. 71 that dissects Bella Vista. The first few miles through Hiwasse are slated to open April 22. This section will connect U.S. 72 North and U.S. 72 South with a total price tag of $20 million. The $13 million north extension of the bypass connecting U.S. 72 with C.R. 34 is expected to open this fall, according to Steve Lawrence, chief engineer for district 9 of the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department. Lawrence was one of five panelist to speak at the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce Business Matters breakfast meeting on Friday (April 18).
He said there will be a full interchange at the south entrance of the bypass built once Missouri comes up with the funds to complete their part of the project. There is $30 million earmarked for that interchange to be built later. The roundabout is an interim fix to provide connectivity in the near term. Dick Trammel, moderator for the event, said Missouri plans to seek a half-cent sales tax like Arkansas in the next year to finish their side of bypass.
Benton County Judge Bob Clinard said the county plans to pave Punkin Hollow Road which will provide another access route from south Bella Vista into Bentonville, helping to take some traffic off U.S. 71. He said there are plans to connect N.E. J Street in Bentonville to U.S. 72 giving more access on the backside of Bentonville.
Clinard said county funds are tapped out after having to shell out $700,000 to repair more than $5 million in road damage from storms and floods last year. He said the county received federal disaster aid that will cover 87.5% of that damage.
“These are bridges and roads that have to be repaired and it is taking time and money away from other paving projects. We have 700 miles of unpaved roads in Benton County and only enough budget to pave 28 miles this year,” Clinard said.
Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin told the business leaders at Friday’s breakfast meeting that traffic is good barometer of prosperity.
“I could take you to plenty of places in Arkansas this morning and there is no traffic, but there are also no jobs, and nobody wants to live there. We are blessed with jobs and plenty of people who want to call Northwest Arkansas home. So keep that (in mind) while we continue to build out the infrastructure,” McCaslin said.
He thanked the voters in Bentonville for passing a one-cent sales tax to fund $85 million in street work back in 2007. He said Bentonville also will collect $700,000 in annual outlays from the half-cent sales tax approved across the state last year.
“A mile of highway costs between $4 million and $6 million, so you can see how much money it takes. There is no one person in Northwest Arkansas with enough money to solve the region’s traffic problems,” McCaslin said.
He said it’s been nine years in the works but the city, the state and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plan to extend 8th Street from Walton Boulevard with five lanes all the way to Interstate 540 with an interchange located north of Exit 86 and NorthWest Arkansas Community College. The total project is expected to cost about $53 million. He said Wal-Mart is kicking in $15 million toward this project, another $32 million came from a federal earmark in 2005 gleaned from then U.S. Rep. John Boozman, R-Rogers.
“We just got the approval to go ahead with this project and begin acquiring the right-of-ways. Then utilities will be relocated and then construction can begin. This is a huge challenge, but it will improve connectivity to and from Wal-Mart’s home campus with direct access to I-540,” McCaslin said.
As the county paves alternative access routes from Bella Vista into Bentonville, McCaslin the city will add turn lanes and beef up infrastructure at several major intersections along Tiger Boulevard in north Bentonville.
Without the turn lanes, McCaslin joked that the “city could set up a booth and sell chances for an opportunity to turn left, but that’s probably not the best option.”
Trammel said orange barrels will be familiar decorations across the region for the next few years as millions of tax dollars are poured into pavement.
“When you see those orange barrels, just smile and know things are going to get better,” he said.