Major highway projects complete in Northeast Arkansas, ‘another tool’ in regional economic development

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,011 views 

A portion of Arkansas 226 under construction.

Drive times for motorists between much of Northeast Arkansas and the central and southern parts of the state should now be safer and faster.

The final section of the new U.S. 67 from Swifton to Walnut Ridge, and the four-lane expansion of Arkansas 226 that connects Jonesboro with U.S. 67 near Swifton were officially dedicated Thursday (Aug. 11). State and local officials gathered to celebrate a significant upgrade in the region’s highway system.

“This isn’t just a road improvement. This will impact the safety and lives of people throughout Northeast Arkansas,” Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp told Talk Business & Politics. “This will be another tool that we can utilize to positively impact the economy of this part of the state.”

The four-lane project of Arkansas 226 began in 2010, and the total cost for the project was $83 million including the right of ways, according to numbers released by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. Construction on the final, almost 17-mile section of U.S. 67 from Swifton to Walnut Ridge, began in 2012, and it cost $76.4 million to complete. It connects to the new U.S. 67 from Swifton to Newport that was dedicated in 2009.

The former section of U.S. 67 from Newport to south Hoxie will now be designated as U.S. 367, said AHTD District 10 Maintenance Engineer Brad Smithee. U.S. 67 will begin again in Walnut Ridge leading into Pocahontas, just off the U.S. 67 Walnut Ridge/Hoxie bypass. Drive times in the region will be dramatically impacted, he said.

A motorist driving from Jonesboro to Little Rock could save as much as 30 minutes off their drive, Smithee said. Drivers from other cities and towns from around the area including Paragould, Trumann, Pocahontas, Corning, Walnut Ridge, and others will also have quicker drive times.

Safety is a major reason why the road upgrades were necessary, Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin told Talk Business & Politics. Expanded road ways will increase driver safety, and will become another calling card for economic development, Perrin said. There’s also a belief that quicker and safer drive times will lead more high school students from the central and southern part of the state to attend Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, he added.

“We’re very delighted about these projects … this is an example of how regionalism affects everybody,” Perrin said. “What’s good for one of us is often times good for all of us,” he said.

Arkansas 226 completion is the latest transportation improvement for Jonesboro, the region’s hub city. Earlier this year, a section of U.S. 63, connecting Jonesboro to Memphis was designated as the I-555 corridor. The designation means the highway can now apply for federal money for expansions, and improvements.

The economic implications began early Thursday morning before the highway projects were officially dedicated. Snapp said he got a call from Allegis Corp., a company that operates a distribution center in the industrial park at the Walnut Ridge Airport. Allegis wants to build an additional, 20,000-square-foot facility, and the new highway is the primary reason, Snapp said.

How this will affect drive patterns in this part of the state is uncertain, but officials think towns like Pocahontas and Walnut Ridge will experience more drivers, and trucks now that the route is four-laned from North Little Rock, Smithee said.

More drivers mean more customers for local businesses, Snapp said. It will take months and years to gauge exactly how much this will shape the economy and safety in this part of the state.

“This is a big day in Northeast Arkansas,” Snapp said.