Progress is slow but it’s happening on the much-anticipated 21-mile Bella Vista Bypass that will link Highway 72 near Gravette directly to U.S. 71 in North Bentonville. Chamber of Commerce, state Highway officials and legislators from Benton County gathered Friday morning (Aug. 21) to officially open two more miles which has been under construction since mid-2012 at a cost of $14 million.
The entire two-lane bypass is budgeted at $53 million with completion slated for mid-2016. The state estimates the average cost for a mile of highway on this project is between $5.5 million and $6 million. The six miles under construction now that will link Highway 71 to Highway 72 has a budgeted cost of $52.6 million.
Steve Lawrence, district engineer for the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department, said the two miles just completed north of Highway 72 connects to Highway 34 which will link residents in the Highlands area of northwest Bella Vista with a shorter route to Gravette and it gives them an alternate route into Bentonville.
Lawrence said this is as far as the state is going north until Missouri finishes the road on that side of the state and meets Arkansas at the state line. That final leg to the Missouri line is 2.54 miles at a projected cost $10 million.
“Arkansas will not build a road to nowhere. But as soon Missouri approves the funding we will pick it and take finish the last two miles,” Lawrence said. “The work going South is well underway and is expected to be completed by mid-next year, weather permitting.”
Arkansas Highway Commissioner Dick Trammel said the bypass dubbed Highway 549 already serves various trucks and traffic in its two-lane unfinished state.
“Today we are celebrating two-thirds of the Bella Vista Bypass being under contract right now. This has been many years in the making,” Trammel said at the Friday morning event.
Much of the talk about the bypass connection at Highway 71 in North Bentonville has been about a temporary roundabout, which will serve as a the link from Highway 71 to the Highway 549. The concern is that the roundabout will be problematic for older citizens in Bella Vista. Trammel joked that the secret of navigating a roundabout is to “stay in the right lane and hope you don’t get hit.”
With regard to Missouri finishing their 4-mile, $4.25 million leg, Trammel said they have an election next year and he remembers what it felt like years ago when trying to drum up voter support of highway funding in Arkansas.
“Don’t get discouraged about the Missouri lag. It’s not a highway to nowhere. Right now we estimate between 6,000 and 8,000 cars will use Highway 549 daily,” Trammel said.
Gravette Mayor Kurt Maddox was among those at Friday’s opening. He said last week he heard a Bella Vista resident used Highway 549 and it saved him three miles on his trip to a restaurant in Gravette.
“Years ago Highway 71 used to run through Gravette and we are delighted that Highway 549 will help again connect Gravette directly to Highway 71,” Maddox said.