An ad hoc group of elected officials and civic leaders is making a new push for an old economic development concept across northern parts of the state. U.S. 412 runs from Springdale to Paragould, but in many stretches its only two or three lanes.
Trans-state motorists, truckers, and others find other east-west routes and it costs this part of the state money, White River Planning and Development District Executive Director Van Thomas told Talk Business & Politics.
The lack of major east-west corridor in the northern part of Arkansas inhibits economic growth, Thomas said. His office is based in Batesville, and is more than 80 miles from a major east-west freeway caliber route. Industries that need that kind of access to transportation are less likely to locate in area so desolate, he said.
“We need to bring this back to the forefront … it’s vital,” Thomas said. “There was a major push years ago, but it died, but hopefully we’re able to revive it.”
Thomas, along with Sharp County Judge Gene Moore, Mountain Home Mayor Joe Dillard, Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District Executive Director Joe Willis and others have traveled to different parts of the state, including Jonesboro, to drum up interest. If it were expanded it would better connect two of the state’s thriving economic regions, Northwest Arkansas and Jonesboro.
The problem is money.
There are five designated corridors from Springdale to Paragould along U.S. 412. The total construction costs for all five are estimated to be $1.317 billion for the 173.9 mile route, according to the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. The longest corridor is from Bellefonte to Ash Flat, and the most costly is the Springdale northern bypass which would cost $492 million. Those cost projections are based on 2014 estimates, and would likely be much higher by the time the projects were completed.
“There’s always been a push to develop north and south corridors. In our state all major roads lead to Little Rock,” Thomas said.
A study was conducted in the late 1990s, and it indicated the economic impact would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year, but it’s been 20 years since that study was conducted, Thomas said. A new study is probably needed, he said.
The highway is curvy, and often two-laned in many stretches from Springdale to Harrison. There’s a long stretch from Harrison to Mountain Home where the road is two-laned, and then there are other stretches along the route that are sporadically three and four-laned from Mountain Home to Paragould.
A piece of the 412 puzzle is about to be completed. Work is set to begin on a 14.5 mile expansion along 412 that connects Walnut Ridge to Paragould, AHTD District 10 Engineer Brad Smithee told Talk Business & Politics. The $50 million project could begin this fall. It will take three years to complete, and it will eliminate a number of old bridges. The bridges will be replaced with box culverts that are easier to maintain, Smithee said.
Smithee said parts of the 412 route that run through Northeast Arkansas need to be expanded. The stretch from Hardy to Black Rock can be treacherous during bad weather, and an expanded highway would make it safer, he said. Residents in this country spend more per person on cell-phone service than we do on highways, he said.
“I think we need to make it more of a priority,” he said.
It will take many years to get U.S. 412 expanded, Thomas said. The goal of the group is to raise awareness. Without it, the project will never be completed, he said. Even if stretches are nothing more than high-quality, three-lane highway, he said.
The next step for the group maybe to form a non-profit corporation. Educating business and political leaders along the route and in Little Rock will be the key, he said.
“It’s a great idea … we have to turn this into a priority,” he said.