Fortunate Funding

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 158 views 

Roadway construction might mean more traffic and delays for those who brave Interstate 49, but the work is not only a sign of progress. It’s also a move to benefit quality of life.

Northwest Arkansas is in the midst of $415 million in transportation improvements that will bring the area 15 more miles of highways and widen 17 miles of I-49 to six lanes.

The work is part of the $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program, which includes 36 projects in 19 corridors across the state.

“The Connecting Arkansas Program is the largest highway construction program ever undertaken by the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department,” according to the program’s website.

Four of the eight Northwest Arkansas projects in the program are under construction.

Without the program, Northwest Arkansas wouldn’t be as far along on regionally significant highway projects that have been discussed for 20 years, said Tim Conklin, transportation programs manager for Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission.


Money Follows The Cars

In November 2012, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for the program.

Dick Trammel, chairman of the highway commission, said the area is fortunate to have this funding. Money went to where the cars are most.

“Where would we be if we hadn’t passed that tax?” Trammel said. “The people stepped up.”

So far, the tax has generated $328,466 more than planned. “It is doing better than projected, and we are proud of that,” Trammel said.

Mike Boyd, chief fiscal officer for the highway department, said surplus money can be used for more projects. But revenue could change.

“The further down the road, you never know,” Boyd said.

Also, the cost of road construction materials such as concrete have increased and could impact the surplus.

“We’re financial managers,” Trammel said. “We’re very conscious of how we spend the taxpayers’ dollars.”

As for whether voters will need to renew the sales tax when it ends in 2023, Trammel expects that residents will step up in the future. “The people of Arkansas want better highways,” he said.


That Quality Of Life

Before the sales tax was approved, Texas A&M Transportation Institute completed a study showing that traffic congestion costs Northwest Arkansas $103 million annually.

Cost was calculated using the value of time delay and excess fuel consumption based on an hourly rate of $20.50 per hour of delay.

Tim Lomax, co-author of the study and regent fellow at the institute, said Northwest Arkansas has time to monitor whether the 10-year sales tax is making progress toward reducing the cost of congestion.

The economy is often the driving factor behind whether the cost is reduced. “If the economy booms, most areas are pretty hard-pressed to stay even,” Lomax said.

And must the area continue investing in its highways?

“Really it’s that quality of life,” he said.

J.L. “Jim” Gattis II, professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas, said his wife once told him that “not getting stuck in traffic is a quality of life.”

Investments into highways “just make sense as your population grows,” he said.

Northwest Arkansas is the 45th fastest growing U.S. metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The area has an estimated population of 513,559 residents, making it the 105th largest in the nation.

“If you’re in a growth area, that (infrastructure investment) is always the nature of the game,” Gattis said.

Will Northwest Arkansas ever meet its need of highways?

“The proof is in the pudding,” Gattis said. “Look at what you have.”


Projects, Projects, Projects

Projects to widen Interstate 49 to six lanes are being completed with money from the program, $1.3 billion Interstate Rehabilitation Program and the gas tax, said Danny Straessle, public information officer for the highway department.

“Without the voter approved programs, we wouldn’t get much work done at all,” Straessle said.

APAC-Central is widening 8 miles of I-49 from Johnson to Springdale. The $28.3 million phase between Johnson and U.S. Highway 412 should be completed by the end of 2016. The $21.65 million phase from Highway 412 to Wagon Wheel Road is planned for completion in late 2017.

Widening 5 miles of I-49 between Highway 264 and New Hope Road is set to start in mid-2016. Widening and interchange improvements between Highway 102 to Highway 72 are also planned to start in mid-2016.

West of I-49, crews are working fast and furiously on the Highway 412 Bypass.

Eutaw Construction Co. of Aberdeen, Mississippi, is completing the $100.6 million project, between Highway 112 and I-49.

Since starting last year, workers have operated heavy machinery to clear a path for the four-lane bypass.

The 4.2-mile project will include 14 bridges and two interchanges. Work is set to be completed in late 2018.

In northern Benton County, Kolb Grading is completing the $52.6 million project to build 6 miles of the Bella Vista Bypass, between Highway 71B and Highway 72 South. It was the first Connecting Arkansas Program project to be awarded.

Trammel said he’s heard some say the bypass is a road to nowhere.

But the state will have the money to complete the project because of the program. Completion is contingent on when the Missouri Department of Transportation will build its section of the bypass.

Missouri has $20.7 million of the estimated $46.9 million needed to complete the project in its construction program for 2020, said Frank Miller, southwest district planning manager for the transportation department.

But Missouri doesn’t have a funding source for the remaining $26.2 million, Miller said.

Trammel is confident the states will work together to complete the bypass. “Hopefully I will get to drive on it someday,” he said.


The Other 30 Percent

Since the tax went into effect in July 2013, 70 percent of the revenue is budgeted for significant highway projects across the state. The remaining 30 percent goes to cities and counties.

Springdale will receive $1.3 million this year because of the program, said Melissa Reeves, director of public relations.

“The Connecting Arkansas Program has been very beneficial to the city of Springdale,” Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said. “For 2016, 21 percent of our street fund revenue will come from the CAP.”

Money will be used to build sidewalks and trails, Sprouse said. “We are grateful for the program.”