Those who spoke Tuesday morning (July 14) at the opening ceremony for a six-mile piece of Interstate 49 through Chaffee Crossing east of Fort Smith had a common theme: It’s a great start worth celebrating, but more money and concrete is needed to link the short stretch into a major national highway corridor.
The event was held on the I-49 (technically I-549) overpass in Barling that is on the northern terminus of the six-mile interstate.
In 2009, the AHTD received one-time funding of $352 million in federal stimulus money for highway work. The I-49 route through Chaffee Crossing initially received $71.6 million. In April 2013, AHTD District 4 Engineer Joe Shipman estimated that $95 million to $100 million would be spent on the six-mile section – or more than $16 million a mile.
Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, opened the event by saying a completed I-49 through western Arkansas would put the Fort Smith region at the “crossroads of America.” Ivy Owen, director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA), told the large crowd that they are “part of history” for braving the heat to celebrate the opening. He also singled out Billy Dooly and Janie Glover, former employees of the Fort Smith chamber, for their I-49 advocacy over the years. Glover is an FCRA board member.
Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD), said the state was able to move quickly on the project in part because the FCRA provided 45 acres of right-of-way. He said the section has already resulted in new developments.
“This really shows you the role of transportation in economic development. … But it’s only a small part of it,” Bennett said of the six-mile section.
MORE TO DO
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said the new road is a “great addition” to the area, and reinforced Bennett’s note that it’s just a slice of what is needed.
“It reflects what more we have to do,” Hutchinson said.
He said federal lawmakers in Washington D.C. must pull together a highway funding bill to better address the country’s infrastructure needs. Congress has been stalled for more than a year on a new long-term plan for national highway funding. Arkansas has delayed 75 road projects – including more than 11 in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas areas – valued at $335 million because of uncertain federal funds.
"Our nation's roads and highways have suffered under too many short-term extensions, which have led to higher costs, more waste, and less capability to prioritize major modernization projects to address growing demands on our interstates," U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said in late June.
Bennett said during a June 24 meeting of the Working Group for Highway Funding that Arkansas’ road system faces a $16.8 billion shortfall over the next 10 years, with $20.4 billion in highway needs but only $3.6 billion in projected revenues. Those needs include $6.25 billion that could be spent on I-49, I-69 and I-55.
THE BRIDGE AND COMPLETING I-49
Two sections of I-49 in western Arkansas are without designated funding or engineering work. The shortest is the 15-mile section between the I-40/I-49 interchange near Alma and across the Arkansas River into Barling. That work, according to recent AHTD estimates, will cost in today’s dollars around $350 million. That’s about $23.3 million per mile.
The longer stretch is about 185 miles and runs from just north of Greenwood to Texarkana. Cost estimates for that portion are around $3 billion, or about $16.2 million per mile.
In an interview after Tuesday’s opening, Allen told The City Wire that “getting over the river is the next target.” He said Fort Smith area leaders have reached out to the Northwest Arkansas Council to help lobby state and federal officials for funding.
“It’s imperative that we get over the river and connect that (Alma interchange with I-49 and I-40) with this. … We’re engaged in an early effort with the Northwest Arkansas Council and Scott Bennett to move in that direction,” Allen said.
Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, and chairman of the Arkansas Senate’s Revenue and Tax committee, attended Tuesday’s event. He said “collaboration is critical” with Northwest Arkansas and state and federal officials in order to complete I-49 through western Arkansas.
“Fort Smith has a lot to gain by linking up to Northwest Arkansas, and this would be a specific example where we both see it as mutually beneficial,” Files said.
He said it is important for state officials to “get as much groundwork in place” – engineering, route studies, environmental work – so when the highway funding “debacle in Washington” is resolved, the bridge and other sections of I-49 will be “ready to execute.” He said one reason the section through Chaffee Crossing received stimulus funding was because it was more “shovel ready” than other projects around the state and nation.