Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission will apply for federal grant money to fill a $32.4 million funding gap that has prevented the Missouri Department of Transportation from completing a 4.8-mile segment of Interstate 49 to the Arkansas/Missouri state line.
The uncompleted segment is part of an 18.9-mile gap in I-49 between the two states that’s known as the Missouri/Arkansas Connector, formerly the Bella Vista Bypass, said Tim Conklin, assistant director for the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. The connector would complete a 265-mile segment of I-49 between Alma and Kansas City, Mo., a stretch of interstate designated as high priority corridor No. 1 in 1991 and as a future interstate by Congress.
“It’s a project that is of national significance, not only for Arkansas but for the state of Missouri,” Conklin said.
On (Wednesday) Sept. 27, the commission approved applying to receive $32.4 million from the $1.5 billion Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program. Missouri has $18.43 million dedicated for the project but still needs $32.4 million to complete the $50.83 million project. Conklin said he’s received confirmation from Missouri it would build the project if the planning commission were awarded the grant money. The grant money would be given to the state to complete the project.
“The idea is not for us to build the interstate but to apply for a grant,” Conklin said.
The Arkansas and the Missouri highway departments would own and operate the interstate, not the planning commission.
When asked about applying for grant money that would be given to another state, Conklin explained that the project is within the planning commission’s planning area, which includes McDonald County, Mo. City and county officials from McDonald County were at the meeting and spoke in support of the project. John Bunch, commissioner for McDonald County, said the project would improve safety, and he could see no losers in it.
The competitive grant is designed for metropolitan areas with more than 200,000 people and for cities. Jeff Hawkins, executive director for the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said the deadline to apply for the grant is Nov. 2 but was uncertain when the commission would be notified as to whether it would receive the funding. He estimated it likely would be within three months of the deadline.
Dick Trammel, chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission, said the support this project has received from organizations, city, county and state officials in Arkansas and Missouri shows that “we’ve come together with Missouri to recognize the importance of I-49 as far as the economic growth to both Missouri and Arkansas and the fact that we are making this grant.”
Trammel was unaware of another instance in which a public board in Arkansas has applied to receive grant money that would be given to another state.
“That’s what makes this unique,” he said. “It’s two departments, two states coming together to make possible economic growth in both states.”
When asked what plan B would be if the commission didn’t receive the funding, Trammel said Missouri would have to come up with the funding to build its portion of the interstate. Arkansas is awaiting Missouri to start its part of the project before moving forward to complete a segment of the connector that would tie into Missouri’s project and to build an interchange in Bella Vista.
“We have 14.1 miles in Arkansas completely funded,” Conklin said.
Arkansas and Missouri have the environmental studies and design completed and right-of-way purchased for the 18-mile project. So far, the Arkansas Department of Transportation has completed 12 miles of the connector, which was designated as state highway 549. In May, 6.4 miles of the connector opened to traffic. The highway was initially built to be two lanes but will be expanded to four lanes.
The existing two-lane highway receives 7,000 vehicles per day, between Gravette and Bentonville, Trammel said. Construction on the remaining two lanes for the connector might go to bid as early as this fall, Conklin said.