Arkansas Highway Department forwards alternate I-69 route to federal officials

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 1,378 views 

State Department of Transportation officials said Friday (Feb. 16) they have forwarded an alternate route to federal highway officials for part of the long-awaited Interstate 69 superhighway that many hope will spur economic development across the Arkansas’ Delta region.

State highway officials said they have investigated plans, at the behest of local officials, to construct two lanes from the eastern terminus of the Monticello Bypass to Highway 65 in McGehee instead of earlier designs to construct two lanes of the proposed 11.3-mile western leg of the detour in Drew County.

The eastern section of the Monticello Bypass now under construction will extend from U.S. Highway 278, east of the city, to U.S. Highway 425 to the south. Nearly $76 million in funding to purchase the right of way for the ultimate four-lane Interstate facility for both segments is included in this alternative funding scenario, state highway officials said.

State Highway Commissioner Robert Moore said the alternative funding project would construct a safer route to serve as a connector between two major highways in South Arkansas, U.S. Highways 425 and 65.

“Not only would this alternative funding scenario allow freight in southeast Arkansas to move more efficiently and safely through the region, it would also provide a larger footprint for Future Interstate 69,” said Moore. “Looking at the big picture, this new roadway and its connection to the eastern portion of the bypass makes good sense as the next phase of Future Interstate 69.”

First announced in September 2007 as one of the nation’s “corridors of the future,” the planned 2,700-mile, I-69 interstate highway would run from the Mexican border to Canada extending across Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan. According to estimates the Federal Highway Administration, the total cost of the completed project would exceed $35 billion.

When the project was first announced, federal highway officials selected six disjointed interstate routes to participate in a new federal initiative to develop multi-state corridors to help reduce growing traffic congestion. The I-69 corridor was selected for its potential to use public and private resources to reduce traffic congestion along the so-called NAFTA superhighway that runs from Texas to Michigan.

Under the state’s 2016 Fastlane grant application for federal highway funds, Arkansas officials said the completion of the design and right-of-way acquisition for a 29.5 mile leg of I-69 in Drew County would move the state closer to the goal of constructing the “High Priority Corridor.” Total costs for the nearly 170-mile section in Arkansas would total more than $3 billion, officials have said.

The only section of I-69 that is under construction is the 8.5-mile eastern leg of the Monticello Bypass that is expected to be finished later this summer. According to state highway officials, nearly $76 million in funds is available to construct the next phase of the interstate highway project through a mix of federal earmarks and state matching funds.

“There are many industries in the Southeast Arkansas region that stand to benefit from moving the funding to this alternative segment of Future Interstate 69,” ARDOT Director Scott Bennett said in a statement. “This change would enhance freight travel and connectivity and, at the same time, create a higher profile project that should garner more support at the national level and increase the competitiveness of future federal funding grant applications.”

Bennett continued: “The alternative route has the advantage of connecting to several major U.S. Highways. It also puts a greater emphasis on the need for the addition of Interstate 69 to the nation’s Interstate System, including the Great River Bridge crossing of the Mississippi River.”

One week ago, Bennett testified before the Arkansas Legislative Council’s Highway Commission Review and Advisory Subcommittee that a leaked draft of President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan is “very much a rich get richer plan” that wouldn’t result in large amounts of money for Arkansas.

Oon Monday (Feb. 12), President Trump released his $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that includes $200 billion in federal funds that will be use to spur state, local and private investment to rebuild the nation’s transportation network, including roads, highways, bridges, railroads and waterways across the U.S.

Nearly $100 billion or half of the federal funding would come from an infrastructure incentives initiative that would require new sources of funding for matches. That would mean the half-cent sales tax passed by Arkansas voters in 2012 to fund the Connecting Arkansas Program wouldn’t qualify, Bennett said. Another 10% or $20 billion would fund transformative projects too risky for the private sector.

President Trump’s plan would set aside $20 billion expand infrastructure financing programs, including $14 billion for existing credit programs and $6 billion for private bond activity. Another $10 billion would go toward federal capital revolving fund to reduce leasing of federal real property that would be more cost-effect to purchase.

Another $50 billion in federal direct funding would be devoted to a new Rural Infrastructure Program to rebuild and modernize infrastructure in smaller communities. Bennett said Arkansas would not be able to benefit much from this part of the plan because of the emphasis on private investment, which often includes toll roads. Those require more traffic than is available in most parts of Arkansas. He said effect of the plan would be that the money would go mostly to population centers.

“They have the people. they have the traffic; they have the tolls,” Bennett told Talk Business & Politics. “They’re the ones that have been able to pass pretty substantial infrastructure plans – the East Coast, the West Coast, Texas, Florida.”

At a Feb. 6 meeting, state Highway Commissioners approved the publication of a Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) amendment shifting the funds for construction from the western leg of the Monticello Bypass to the segment from the eastern terminus of the Monticello Bypass to US Highway 65 in McGehee. The STIP amendment process includes a public comment period that will be published on Feb. 23. Public comments will be due to the state Highway Department by March 12. Those comments and the request for the amendment will then be forwarded to the Federal Highway Administration for approval, which takes about one week, said Highway Department spokesman Danny Straessle.

Once approved, Straessle said right of way for the four-lane Interstate project would be purchased for both segments.

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