Transportation, I-49 on Mayors’ to-do list

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 189 views 

Working together on regional transportation issues — especially Interstate 49 — is the first order of business for a “closer working relationship” between the mayors of Fayetteville and Fort Smith.

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan and Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders held joint press conferences Wednesday (Feb. 8) in their respective cities to discuss the new partnership.

“Our initial focus will be on transportation issues, and other areas of mutual interest will be identified in the future. First: The completion of I-49 is a natural topic for joint emphasis,” Sanders said in a statement. “I-49 will have tremendous economic benefit for our two cities. The benefit to Fort Smith is obvious. It would place us at the center of an east/west and north/south interstate intersection in the center of the United States.  We will see a transportation and logistic enterprise confluence. Job growth will be substantial. There are tremendous benefits to Fayetteville as well.”

Sanders said the “combined efforts” of the two cities in lobbying Congress for I-49 funding “will be significant.”

The I-49 route stretches from Texarkana, up through Dequeen, Mena and Waldron, into Fort Smith and on through Northwest Arkansas. All that stands in the way of this interstate reality is several small segments at the Arkansas-Louisiana and Arkansas Missouri borders, an Arkansas River bridge east of Barling that could cost up to $350 million, and a large 185-mile segment between Texarkana and Fort Smith that posts a price tag between $3 billion and $3.5 billion.

Work has begun on the Bella Vista Bypass, which will connect Arkansas and Missouri with an interstate highway that will eventually be part of I-49. The proposed bypass is about 20 miles, extending from U.S. 71 just south of Bella Vista to U.S. 71 near Pineville, Mo. Arkansas’ portion is approximately 15 miles in length, while the Missouri section will be about 5 miles.

Arkansas has already spent about $20 million on engineering, utility relocation and other preparatory work on the bypass. It is estimated that Arkansas’ share of the project could be as much as $250 million.

Sanders told The City Wire in an interview prior to the events that Mayor Jordan gets the credit for initiating the process. Sanders also provided The City Wire the following talking points that outline the partnership plan.

• Both of our cities are participants in vital regional organizations — the Northwest Arkansas Regional Alliance and the Fort Smith Regional Alliance. I have met with mayors in Arkansas and Oklahoma who are part of the Fort Smith Regional Alliance to talk about the Fayetteville-Fort Smith relationship, and to reaffirm Fort Smith’s solid support of and participation in our regional alliance. A closer working relationship with the City of Fayetteville will benefit this alliance.

• Fort Smith and Fayetteville are the second and third largest cities in Arkansas. We each have strengths that can benefit and support the other. A closer working relationship has the potential to be the catalyst for creating more vibrant growth and development.

• Fort Smith has industry which would substantially benefit from the Arkansas River navigation channel depth being certified to a depth of 12 feet and the accompanying development of intermodal freight facilities along the river. Fayetteville also has business and industry which can benefit from a 12 foot channel and enhanced freight handling. River transportation is 87 percent less expensive than truck transportation.  Again, combining our efforts to encourage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and our Congressional delegation to get this done as expeditiously as possible will provide additional leverage.

• Railroad service expansion is another key element for both cities. Expansion of short line and long haul freight service positively impacts the opportunities for growth and development of both cities.

• Current air service is readily available to both cities, and this can be expected to grow with the success of these other transportation efforts.

• A true regional intermodal transportation system will be the result of our successful efforts in these transportation areas. Both cities have significant trucking enterprises that will certainly benefit from this intermodal growth and development.

• The overall objectives are growth, prosperity, cooperation and success.