Short I-49 stretch to open in late 2014

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 166 views 

It has been talked about for years and by the end of next year, residents will be able to drive along a small stretch of what will eventually be Interstate 49, which will stretch from Lafayette, La., to Kansas City, Mo.

According to Joe Shipman, District 4 Engineer with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, paving and signage of the segment between Arkansas Highway 22 (Rogers Avenue) to U.S. Highway 71 should be complete before the end of 2014.

"That project, to pave it, we expect (completion by) mid-year or probably later next year and with that, we'll be able to sign it and open it to traffic from 71 to 22," Shipman said.

Completing the five and a half mile stretch has not come cheap, he said.

The paving contract, which will be the final project of what the AHTD has been referring to as "Highway 71 Relocation," totals $22.6 million while other projects such as building bridges and competing earth work has run into the tens of millions of dollars, as well.

In all, construction of the small section of road will likely cost more collectively than the recently-started Interstate 540 rehabilitation project, which itself bid out at $78.829 million.

"If you total all of that up, you're going to get $95 to $100 million that's been invested in this route," he said.

The various projects to complete the stretch breaks down as follows:
• $17.42 million – Roadway embankment from Custer Boulevard to Highway 22 (completed);
• $13.757 million – Roadway embankment and bridges from Taylor Ave. to Highway 22 (completed);
• $11.295 million – Roadway embankment and bridges from County Road 8 to Custer Boulevard (completed);
• $14.625 million – Construction of bridges and embankment from Massard Road to Roberts Boulevard (under construction);
• $17.174 million – Completion of interchange between future I-49 and U.S. Highway 71 (under construction); and
• $22.65 million – Paving of highway from U.S. Highway 71 to Arkansas Highway 22 (to begin within weeks).

Part of the funding for this project came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus, Shipman said.

As for the rest of the money, he said it has come quicker than he or others in the AHTD initially expected. But the urgency of the project from local leaders in government and business helped to make this project a priority, he said.

One of those who pushed for the completion of this section of interstate was Ivy Owen, the executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority. He said the project has been his priority ever since he came to FCRA six years ago.

At that time, he said he did not expect the new road to begin construction, much less be near completion, during his time at the redevelopment authority.

"That's a major, major accomplishment," Ivy said. "When I first got here, I was told that it would never be built."

Owen said he and other leaders impressed upon the AHTD what completion of the project could mean not only in terms of relieving traffic on a congested I-540, but also in terms of economic development.

According to Owen, he met with Arkansas Highway Commissioner Dick Trammel to sell the project's importance.

"When our new highway commissioner was appointed, I called him and invited him to Chaffee Crossing and told him how important this project was for us. And he made a pledge to get this done," Owen said. "And he sure has had a hand in it. That's one of the reasons that it's being completed is because of Dick Trammel and his friendship to the area and his economic focus on development as a commissioner."

Once the paving ends late in 2014, Owen is convinced that already-steady growth in the area will hit breakneck speed.

"When the paving (takes place) and people believe I-49 will actually be finished, there will be a land rush out there," he said. "For people waiting for the right time to come out there and invest, this will unlock the door."

As for when Arkansas' entire portion of I-49 will be completed, from Interstate 40 to Louisiana, Shipman said it all depends on funding.

As a frame of reference, Shipman said from the time construction contracts were awarded on the 42 mile stretch of I-540 from Alma to Fayetteville, which will eventually be part of I-49, to the opening of the interstate spanned more than a decade.

"The first project on 540 at Alma was actually let to contract in January 1987. We opened it in January 1999," he said.

He said while that project cost more than $400 million, the stretch of I-49 through Arkansas will cost considerably more due to the rising price of asphalt and concrete in recent years, which is why only a small portion of the road will be completed at this time.

"The section south of Fort Smith to Texarkana…it's quite expensive. We're talking billions of dollars to complete it," he said.

Even though the portion to officially open next year is quite small, Owen said he is still excited to see it happen.

"Two or three years ago people started asking when I would retire and I finally adopted the phrase that I'm not going to retire until we drive along I-49 and now that's going to happen before I want to retire," Owen said with a laugh. "I'm just tickled to death that this is going to get done."