U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., has added a provision to the 2017 transportation budget that will designate U.S. 67, from North Little Rock to Walnut Ridge, as the future Interstate 57.
The designation will help economic development along the more than 120-mile route, and could bolster the economy in Northeast Arkansas, Boozman said.
“The presence of an official interstate highway is one of the key factors that developers consider when determining where to make major investments, such as building new factories. This designation is an important step to make Arkansas a better-connected state that is open for business,” Boozman said.
“Arkansas has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make U.S. 67 an interstate-quality road. This provision provides the state the ability to request that any segment of the road that is built to interstate standards be officially added to the federal interstate system as “I-57,” he said.
Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett applauded the move.
“We appreciate the leadership of Senator Boozman in bringing the designation of the U.S. 67 corridor as an Interstate one step closer to reality. This is recognition of the tremendous investment the Department has made to build U.S. 67 to interstate standards from I-40 to U.S. 412 at Walnut Ridge. Although there is still much work to be done north of U.S. 412, this ‘Future I-57’ designation should open up more possibilities for economic development along this important corridor,” Bennett said.
The key to turning the highway into an interstate is what needs to be constructed beyond Walnut Ridge to the Missouri border, AHTD public information officer Danny Straessle told Talk Business & Politics. U.S. 67 has four lanes from Walnut Ridge to Pocahontas, but the 25 miles or more from Pocahontas to Corning on the Missouri border has two lanes.
Studies conducted several years ago estimated it could cost up to $400 million to transform this last section of the road into a freeway grade highway. Straessle didn’t know the estimate for a project of that magnitude. There is no state or federal money to pay for the project, but the designation could help in the future. Officials know it will be years before the highway will be expanded, and it could take just as long to expand the highway across the border in Missouri. Until it’s done, the highway cannot become an official interstate, he said.
The state will have to spend about 80% of its budget in the coming years to maintain its existing roads, and only about 20% will be dedicated to new projects, he said. AHTD is working on a voter initiative in 2018 to find a new funding source for highway and road improvements, he said. It’s in the planning stages and ideas have ranged from a sales tax increase to a revenue transfer, he said.
Arkansas has16,400 miles of highway, the 12th most in any state, he said. The state has just a little more than 3 million people, and 2 million of them drive, he said. If the cross country traffic is added, the highways and roads in the Natural State take a serious pounding each and everyday, he said.
The designation is a start, he said. One of the first questions businesses ask when relocating is how close a location is to an interstate. It’s sometimes hard to explain that U.S. 67 is an interstate quality roadway, even if it doesn’t have the designation, he said. Sign crews will go to work soon putting signage up.
“In reality it’s just a name … but it’s a start,” he said.