ArDOT ‘dusts off’ $600 million future I-49 Barling to Alma stretch

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 5,267 views 

Around 200 residents gathered Thursday (April 26) at the Sacred Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Barling for a public hearing about the proposed Interstate 49 connection between Alma and Barling.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration have cooperated on an environmental re-evaluation as well as refining the conceptual alignment for a new section of Interstate 49 (I-49) that would connect approximately 13.7 miles between Highway 22 in Sebastian County and the I-40/I-49 interchange in Crawford County.

ArDOT officials presented a portion of the work by Kansas City-based engineering firm HNTB Corporation on Thursday (April 26) from the Sacred Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Barling.

The proposed project was originally part of a larger environmental study known as the “US 71 Relocation.” The previous study extended from Highway 70 in DeQueen to I-40 near Alma, and it encompassed approximately 125 miles. The relocation of U.S. 71 in Arkansas is part of Congressionally-Designated High Priority Corridor 1 and Corridor 72, running from Shreveport, La., to Kansas City, Mo. A final environmental impact statement was prepared and a record of decision was issued in December of 1997 that approved the general alignment of a new location, four-lane highway in western Arkansas.

Due to the length of the corridor and funding constraints, design and construction of sections of the corridor have been completed as funding has become available. HNTB’s work on this particular section will include a toll feasibility analysis to see if there would be enough traffic to justify tolling as a funding mechanism to pay for the $600 million stretch.

Danny Straessle, public information officer for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD), told Talk Business & Politics HNTB’s portion of the work should be completed by the end of 2018. “We’re basically taking it off the shelf, blowing the dust off, and taking another look at it. We still don’t have any money for this, but there’s enough of I-49 that has been completed where it’s reasonable to take a look at it again, especially since we have a Chaffee Crossing part that goes from 71 to 22. Going from 22 to I-40 is the next logical step.”

Straessle continued: “It’s not a done deal. The consultant might find that we won’t collect enough tolls. We’ve done several toll studies in the state already where it has been determined that no, it’s not feasible.”

Still, Straessle added, no toll doesn’t necessarily mean no project.

“The project will be done one day. We’ve just got to find the money for it. We don’t have $600 million laying around.” When asked if it could be another 20 years before the 13.7 miles is built, he said, “Possibly, but not preferably.”

What’s different this time is that there is “a groundswell of support from the community, and the department looks at this as something that’s doable” and would help support Arkansas’ economic development.

“You know, the highways in Arkansas are our backbone of economic development, so it just makes sense to complete it. But you’ve got to balance this (project) with the other priorities we have in the state. We have the 12th largest highway system in the country. We have more than 16,400 miles of highways, and we rank 42nd in being able to take care of what we got. Meaning, we have a lot of miles; we don’t have a lot of money. So the commission has to make tough decisions every day on where to spend what limited money we have, and when you look at a brand spanking new four-lane divided Interstate that’s theoretically priced around $600 million, that’s $600 million you can spend over five years in other areas of the state. So how do you balance these potholes over here or this bridge that’s failing, versus a nice, shiny, nice-to-have Interstate that would help economic development in the community over here?”

One way the department has done it is through a half-cent sales tax on everything but food, gas, and medicine. It was passed by voters in November of 2012, but the sunset date is in 2023, and there’s no guarantee of renewal.

“The money off of that, we use to leverage bonds to pay for all this construction we’re doing. It’s about a $1.8 billion program, so when the public steps up and votes and says, ‘Yes, good roads do matter to us in Arkansas,’ it gives us these opportunities.” However, due to the sunset date, “none of that money will apply to this project,” Straessle said, “but a program like that could help fund something like this. We have a project in Little Rock that is about the same price tag. It’s called ’30 Crossing.’ They’re redoing Interstate 30 through the downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock areas and part of I-40. It’s about a $630 million project, and it’s being paid for with that half-cent sales tax.”

Other funding comes through the state’s existing fuel tax, which has not increased in over 20 years.

“But if you think about it, the gas tax hasn’t been raised since the mid-to-late 1990s, yet think about what the cost of construction has done since then. It’s gone up,” Straessle said. “It’s more expensive to build a mile of highway. Six million dollars for a lane mile of interstate. For every two lanes, you’ve got $12 million per mile easily. Have the other two lanes going the other way, or multiply ($6 million) times four, basically, and all of the sudden, it’s gotten really expensive.”

As an example, Straessle pointed to the first 4.5-mile segment of the Springdale bypass. The project held a ribbon cutting on Wednesday and officially “opens” on Monday (April 30). “It’s a four-lane divided Interstate, in a new location. It was $100.6 million, all paid for by the half-cent sales tax.”

Concerning how the department prioritizes projects, Straessle said money usually follows the traffic, and that of Arkansas’ 16,400 miles of road, only half (or close to 8,500) supports 92% of the state’s traffic.

“Those are interstates, major arteries, routes of regional significance. And there are some areas where we’ve had to do capacity upgrades, like we just got finished widening I-49 to three lanes in both directions. With a project like this — we were able to build the stretch across Chaffee Crossing relatively cheaply in terms of construction because the federal government gave us the land. We did not have to purchase right-of-way. Right-of-way purchase, utility relocation costs — those tremendously add to the cost of a project.”

Summing up the mission of the I-49 corridor, Straessle said the vision is to create a mid-continental, north-south route for shipments. With the widening of the Panama Canal, “those big container ships can go to the Port of New Orleans now” and the idea would be “to put all the containers on the trucks and drive straight up I-49 through Arkansas, up into Kansas City or wherever it terminates there in the middle of the country. That way, you don’t go to the port on the east coast or the port on the west coast and then truck it in on I-40. So there’s a lot of benefit to it.”

Other major projects ahead include completion of the Bella Vista bypass and the segment of I-49 connecting Greenwood, US-71, and Texarkana, the latter of which is an estimated $2 billion project.