Van Buren, state officials study traffic relief ideas

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 114 views 

Anyone who has traveled through Van Buren during the last year knows traffic at peak travel times can be challenging at best, and a parking lot at its worst.

And according to conversations with Mayor Bob Freeman and District Engineer Chad Adams from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, the nightmare faced by commuters traveling through the city are unlikely to change anytime soon.

Freeman said the city approached the AHTD about adding an additional exit along Interstate 40 at 16th Street in order to relieve traffic at the interstate's exit 5, but the agency turned down the request.

Adams said the request was turned down not necessarily because the exit was not needed, but because of federal regulations.

"I can confirm that the exit there for 16th Street that goes over the interstate, the federal guidelines limit your exits. They must have at least one mile in between the crossing street for each exit ramp."

The distance between Arkansas Highway 59, Van Buren's main north-south route, and 16th Street is not quite a mile, he said.

But Adams said he had sought answers on why the requirement would keep Van Buren from receiving an additional exit.

"I've even questioned why in Fort Smith there are exits closer than one mile," he said. "But apparently those were approved and construction before these regulations were in place,” Adams explained.

Another solution studied by AHTD was to reconfigure Highway 59 at the interstate to make it flow more naturally for locals and interstate travelers, who must contend with backup from exit 5 during busy travel times in the evenings.

According to Freeman, one of the ideas the department explored and presented to the city was adding more lanes to Highway 59 while at the same time lengthening approaches on I-40. But that would have come at a cost of nearly $14 million.

The other option presented to the city was something Freeman referred to as a "diverging diamond."

"In a diverging diamond, what it does is it saves on having to have bigger access, these on and off-ramps. That's a money saver. What happens, if you're a car down here, and let's say this is Highway 59 and the interstate is running over us, if you're going to the north on Highway 59 and you go over by Larry's (service station), if you're going to the right, then you simply go to the right and get on Interstate 40," Freeman said. "If you're going to the north, or if you're going to the west, then once you come to this point here, you change lanes and you move over to the left-hand lane, so now instead of moving in the right-hand lane, you in the left-hand lane. And then this traffic moves up the left-hand side, and if you're going to the west, then you make a loop and exit that way. If you're going to the north, then after you get past this loop, you're going to go back to the right and go to the north."

The traffic, Freeman said, would essentially criss-cross as it intersects with the interstate. And while the confusing-sounding interchange saves money in theory, the cost to implement the interchange, modeled on two interchanges in Springfield, Mo., would still run about $14 million, he said.

"In order to make this diverging diamond work, the bridge (over Highway 59) would have to be replaced on the interstate to give it more room, so you end up with the diverging diamond costing about the same as the other one because of bridge replacement."

In the five years since the studies were completed, no progress has been made from the AHTD on improving traffic at the intersection. And he said he does not know when a next step could happen, even something as simple as adding an additional lane on the exit ramp.

"I don't know what's happened since then. It seems like time has passed and either it's fallen off the radar or someone's working on it behind the scenes (in the AHTD headquarters in Little Rock and) I'm not aware of it – planning and funding and programming of contracts goes through them. We are involved, but not intimately until it's closer to a reality."

Adams any projects relating to the Highway 59/I-40 interchange were not on a list of projects set to be priority over the next three years, meaning that at the earliest, it would be four to six years before any improvements would even be possible.

"But again, there are a lot of its that go into that statement," he said.

Alternatives that Freeman said he has looked at to relieve traffic congestion include extending Uniontown Road east to Oliver Springs, though terrain makes it a difficult and unrealistic proposition.

Another alternative in the works is the expansion of Northridge Drive from Highway 59 east to eventually connect into Oliver Springs Road. Freeman said the land developer is likely to come before the city council for approval of projects in the coming months, which would take drivers looking to drive through town off of the busiest route and onto less-traveled and less-congested streets.

But Freeman said relief will likely not come until the 16th Street signalization project is complete at Pointer Trail in late August and work on Interstate 540 is complete in 2014, taking the more than 15,000 detoured vehicles off of Van Buren city streets and back onto the interstates, making city streets more navigable. Another project to likely keep traffic moving is when Rena Road re-opens to two way traffic later this year. But Freeman cautions patience from commuters.

"We're still a year, a little over a year from the 540 being finished up," he said, later adding that the stress is "just something we're going to have to live with until these projects get finished."