April 16 was a needle-moving day for Northwest Arkansas in a very significant area — transportation infrastructure.
In Little Rock, a large group of area leaders was on hand to hear two announcements made by the Arkansas Highway Commission and the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.
The first was the official kickoff of a $1.8-billion statewide highway improvement plan known as the Connecting Arkansas Program, the largest highway construction plan ever undertaken by the AHTD, encompassing 31 projects statewide. It will improve 180 miles of state roads during the next decade.
The program is funded through a half-cent sales tax that’s set to expire in 2023. It was approved by voters in 2012 and went into effect in July.
The Northwest Arkansas delegation of legislators, mayors and chamber of commerce members traveled to Little Rock for a proclamation ceremony for the first of the 31 projects — a six-mile portion of the new Bella Vista Bypass.
The bypass is a multi-phased project to construct two lanes of what will ultimately be a 19-mile, four-lane interstate. Its significance to the area is due to the high volume of commuter traffic in and out of Bella Vista.
The other 30 projects include widening and improvements to highways all across the state.
Two of those jobs are in Northwest Arkansas and should help alleviate a multimillion-dollar traffic congestion problem.
In October 2012, the Northwest Arkansas Council released a report prepared by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute that said traffic congestion in Northwest Arkansas has an annual price tag of $103 million.
The cost of congestion is defined in the study as the value of time delay and excess fuel consumption based on an hourly rate of $20.50 per hour of delay.
One project will construct approximately four miles of the four-lane Highway 412 on new alignment in Springdale, extending from Interstate 540 to Highway 112, north of Elm Springs. Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2015.
The other project will be the widening of Interstate 540 to six lanes from Fayetteville to Bentonville. That will occur in four separate jobs, all beginning in mid-2015, according to the AHTD.
“What’s important for Northwest Arkansas is that when the [Northwest Arkansas] Regional Mobility Authority identified their primary projects, those two bypasses were both on there,” said Rob Smith, a policy specialist with the Northwest Arkansas Council. “This will knock out two key projects.”
The second announcement on April 16 was that the 65-mile route of Interstate 540/Highway 71 in Northwest Arkansas is now re-designated as Interstate 49.
Scott Bennett, director of the AHTD, said the department had been given approval by the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to rename the route from Interstate 40 near Alma to the Highway 71B interchange just south of Bella Vista.
AHTD crews began replacing all sign references to Interstate 540 the week of April 21. Interstate 49 signage should be in place along the route within a month. Nearly 700 new signs will be erected at a cost of about $70,000, according to the AHTD.
When complete, Interstate 49 will stretch from the Louisiana border, north to the Missouri border.
Highway Commissioner Dick Trammel of Rogers said the renaming of Interstate 540 to Interstate 49 is part of the transportation department’s ultimate goal of upgrading the U.S. 71 corridor in western Arkansas to interstate highway standards.