Northwest Arkansas waits for federal money for I-49 project supported by officials in 3 states

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,551 views 

More than 40 federal, state, county and city officials in Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri signed letters supporting the federal grant that would complete a 265-mile segment of Interstate 49, between Alma and Kansas City, Mo. The missing link in the segment is an 18.9-mile gap in Missouri and Arkansas, and $32.4 million is needed to complete it.

The gap is the Arkansas/Missouri Connector or the Bella Vista bypass, and on Sept. 27, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission approved applying for a $32.4 million grant. The money would come from the $1.5 billion Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program.

Tim Conklin, assistant director and transportation programs manager for the commission, said he’s not heard if the grant has been approved, or when an announcement is expected to be made on whether the commission would receive it. But the grant application, which was submitted before the Nov. 2 deadline, has the support of U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Billy Long. R-Mo., among other officials in the region. Letters were addressed to Secretary Elaine Chao of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In the letter signed by the previous legislators, they described the project as a “critical section of Interstate 49 between our states. This project will increase safety, contribute to the regional economies of Missouri and Arkansas, and includes significant financial matching funds from state partners.”

Missouri and Arkansas have worked for more than 25 years to complete this gap in I-49, but “budget constrains have consistently impeded progress,” according to the letter. “Fortunately, Arkansas voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 2012, which will finally provide the necessary matching funds to complete the project.”

“The willingness of the state of Arkansas to fund an infrastructure project in Missouri speaks to the regional benefits and economic growth this grant would provide,” the letter shows. “With this grant, the region could improve travel time, decrease congestion and ensure that economic growth continues in Northwest Arkansas and advances into McDonald County and other rural areas of southwest Missouri.”

The letter also shows the project is “shovel-ready” in both states and would improve the safety of motorists by avoiding the congested U.S. Highway 71 through Bella Vista and expand the economy spanning two states.

“Perhaps most importantly, awarding this grant to the NWARPC would emphasize the importance of regional cooperation in completing important infrastructure projects.”

Rob Smith, communications and policy director for the Northwest Arkansas Council, helped to gather the support letters. Smith, a Joplin, Mo. native, said the council previously reached out to officials in southwest Missouri and has built relationships in the region. Smith tapped the relationships to see if they would write letters in support of the project and found the project was broadly supported. Through his connections, he even received support from Cherokee County, Kan., in the southeast corner of the state.

“While I-49 in not located in Kansas, completion of this project would certainly benefit southeast Kansas by providing provided access to both northwest Missouri and Kansas City,” according to Janet Miller, director of Cherokee County, Kan., Economic Development. “This is beneficial to our existing businesses and improves our prospects for future growth.”

Travis Koestner, district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said the 265-mile segment between Kansas City and Fort Smith would eventually become part of a North American freight corridor between Louisiana and Manitoba, Canada. With the grant money, MoDOT would build a 4.8-mile segment to the Arkansas/Missouri state line if the funding is allowed to meet non-federal match requirements for the project in both states and it receives at least $32.3 million to complete it.

“Missouri cannot proceed with project construction if less than $32.3 million is available, or if part of this amount is proposed to be TIFIA [Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act] financing,” Koestner wrote.

Other letters of support were from Missouri legislators and mayors and city managers in Northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri, such as Joplin City Manager Samuel Anselm, who explained the economic benefits of I-49 and Interstate 44 to the city. He also discussed safety issues regarding the existing gap in I-49

“Frequent vehicular collisions occur in that gap, as semi-trucks encounter local drivers on a four-lane road with frequent stop signals and direct access points of entry that creates significant bottlenecks and delays on this important north-south corridor. … The completion of the Missouri-Arkansas Connector would dramatically increase the safety of travel in our region. Trucks and local traffic could move more quickly, encouraging more economic development and tourism in both Missouri and Arkansas, as well as in the adjacent states where industries send freight to this important corridor.”

Several years ago, Missouri started converting U.S. 71 to I-49, and in the state, the interstate extends from Kansas City to Pineville, Mo., “where it digresses to the original four-lane highway,” according to Jill Cornett, executive director for the Harry S. Truman Coordinating Council. I-49 resumes south of Bella Vista. “You can envision the short gap in full interstate capacity between those two points.”

“As the planning commission for this region of the state, HSTCC has a strong interest in seeing the interstate completed, as it represents the completion of a long-range plan to provide a safe, economic and efficient freight and vehicular corridor through Missouri from north to south,” Cornett wrote.

Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie explained that motorists entering U.S. 71 in Bella Vista, from I-49, must “go from high speeds on the interstate to stop-and-go-traffic, which creates a hazard for everyone on the road. This commercial traffic also adds to an already existing issue of congestion on roads that were not built to hold that many vehicle trips per day. To have the interstate completed would mean fewer big trucks passing straight through our city, and less wear and tear on this portion of state highway.”

Wal-Mart Stores, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport Services put more than 1,500 tractor-trailers per week on this portion of the highway in Bella Vista, and “that transportation headache would be avoided if this section of I-49 were finished,” according to Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council.

“These companies as well as logistics companies across the nation stand to save millions of dollars in costs associated with drivers’ time and fuel expenses brought on by the stop-and-go driving through Bella Vista. That stretch of U.S. 71 through Bella Vista is well recognized as our region’s most congested roadway.”

About $1.3 billion has been spent on improvements to the corridor, between Kansas City and Shreveport, La., said Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation. In 1987, ArDOT started construction on what would eventually become I-49 and has steadily invested in it to complete it to interstate standards.

While Missouri needs $32.4 million to complete its portion of the gap, the remaining 14.1 miles in Arkansas is funded. The work includes expanding the existing two-lane segments of the project to four lanes and the construction of an interchange in Bella Vista. Right-of-way has been purchased for the 18.9-mile project, and environmental studies have been completed.

If the planning commission receives the grant, the project was expected to be completed in 2021 and could open in 2022, Conklin said. The segment of I-49 between Fort Smith and Kansas City was designated as high priority corridor No. 1 in 1991.