Bentonville chamber officials host panel on infrastructure, transportation and quality of life

by Nancy Peevy (npeevy@nwabj.com) 658 views 

Work on the 8th Street interchange on Interstate 49 in Bentonville. (photo from the Arkansas Department of Transportation)

City and state leaders took part Thursday (June 14) in a panel discussion about the growth of Bentonville and how that impacts its business community.

The event was the 2018 Build Bentonville Lunch, hosted by the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce. Participating panelists included Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin; Arkansas Highway Commissioner Dick Trammel; Shelli Kerr, Bentonville planning services manager; and Dennis Birge, Bentonville transportation engineer. The event was held at the 21C hotel in Bentonville. Graham Cobb, president/CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, moderated the panel discussion.

According to the Chamber, 34 people are moving to NWA each day, with Bentonville being one of the fastest growing cities in the area. So, the purpose of the event was to provide information on infrastructure, transportation and quality of life to area business leaders.

Cobb began the event by saying that in Northwest Arkansas “we have to be strategic in how we develop.” Mayor McCaslin told attendees that from 2000 to 2010 Bentonville grew by 74% , the largest growth of any city in Arkansas. He attributed that growth to jobs, schools and a high quality of life in the area and said residential growth is concentrated in the southwest part of the city.

“People are bringing their private capital to Bentonville because they’ve looked at us and said… ‘I like the direction they’re going.’ And they decided to take their private money and invest in us because they believe there’s a return on their investment,” McCaslin said.

McCaslin said “the city is not a developer, but is responsible for creating an atmosphere and an infrastructure so that businesses will have “a high return on their investment.”

Birge told the crowd four areas fall under his job as transportation engineer: the Bentonville airport, engineering department, the street department and capital street/drainage projects. A $2.5 million project, involving a western taxi-way, is underway at the airport, he said.

The engineering department has 30 projects in plan review and 60 projects in construction. The street department maintains roads and also includes a sign department and a signal department. Birge said there are 45 signals in the city and that will increase to 55 within the next few years.

Seven capital projects (larger road projects), worth about $20 million, are in the works, with the largest being the Eighth Street interchange. Birge said. The intersection of North Walton and Tiger Boulevard is also undergoing changes with the installation of a turn lane and a new signal. Birge said traffic coordination studies, on streets like Walton and Highway 102, are conducted yearly to coordinate signals.

Cobb asked about how long a project takes and Birge said the process “takes a lot longer than you probably would imagine.” He said it starts with a concept, then goes to design, then looks at utilities and purchasing right of way, and then construction.

“You’re looking at a year to a year and half for design, and maybe up to two years for right of way, depending on size of the project, another year or two for construction. So you could work six to eight years on a project,” Birge said.

The Eighth Street project from Southwest I to Moberly, now underway, is just finishing the utility relocation phase, he said. Once the construction phase begins it will take an additional two to two-and-half years to complete.

Kerr said her community development includes long range planning, current planning to review all the development plans that come through the city, building inspection and code enforcement.

“We are the first step when somebody wants to either build a new subdivision or build a new building, commercial or industrial property,” she said.

Kerr said with all the growth in the city, her department is handling close to 40 requests per month. Last fall her department made some changes to make the process more efficient. As a result, developers must fill out a checklist before they come to a meeting with the city.

“One of the benefits is that now we are getting more of the information we need to get a more comprehensive review to make better informed decisions and that has worked better for the staff and the developers as well,” Kerr said.

The timing of when the building permit is issued has also changed to make the process more efficient, she said.

Trammel began his remarks with a memory of how far Bentonville has come since 1975. He said when he moved here that year there was one stop light in Bentonville, and it was a blinking light at the corner of Walton and Highway 102.

Trammel asked Steve Lawrence, Arkansas Department of Transportation district engineer, to show slides that detailed plans for the Eighth Street Interchange. Lawrence said the interchange is unusual because interchanges often have to be separated by a mile, “so we’re having to build a more complex interchange.” Also unusual is that both northbound and southbound traffic will drive through tunnels.

“When you see orange barrels, don’t frown,” Trammel said. “Just say I hope it gets over pretty quick because it’s going to get better.”

Trammel also addressed the news that Arkansas did not get a $32 million grant for the Bella Vista bypass. He said he looked at the reasons why other projects were given the grant.

“For example, Georgia just got one of the grants and the reason they got that grant is because their legislature had passed some highway infrastructure bills to help improve Atlanta,” Trammel said. “I predict and I hope I’m young enough to survive, I predict that I’ll never see construction stop until (the Bella Vista bypass) is finished, even though we didn’t get the grant.”

Lawrence also said the Walnut and Walton Boulevard interchange, called a single point urban interchange, is going to be the first interchange of its kind in Arkansas. Lawrence said both bridges will be lengthened and widened so there will be enough space under the bridge for a common space interchange.

“There’ll be one signal underneath the bridges that will control the flow of traffic on and off the interstate and through Highway 71B/Walton Boulevard,” he said.

The project was supposed to have been put off until next year, but Lawrence said work will begin soon on the bridges.

“By doing that we’ll be able to eliminate the last four-lane section on I-49 and go on and get it to a six lane, quicker than what we had planned,” he said.

In response to an audience question, Trammel told the crowd that within the next five to 10 years, there will be some form of regional transportation in the area.

“People are looking at how people can go to work without driving a car,” he said.

First National Bank of NWA presented the event, along with sponsors including Hight Jackson Associates, CEI, Nabholz, Midtown Associates, Black Hills Energy, Caddell, Fly XNA, Cox Business, and Flintco.

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