Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission is not expected to receive funding from a federal grant program that would have provided the money to complete an 18.9-mile segment of Interstate 49, between Arkansas and Missouri.
In a recent letter to Congress, Secretary Elaine Chao of the U.S. Department of Transportation, listed the 26 projects to receive funding from the $1.5 billion Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program for fiscal years 2017 and 2018, but no funding was identified for projects in Missouri or Arkansas.
Tim Conklin, transportation programs manager for the commission, was disappointed with the news the region won’t receive the $32.4 million from the federal grant program but hopes the region can move forward and find a means to pay for I-49 gap, referred to as the Arkansas/Missouri Connector or the Bella Vista bypass. Conklin was thankful and encouraged with how the two states worked together leading up to the application for the grant.
“That discussion will have to continue,” said Conklin, adding that the application “was a good application.”
In the application, the planning commission had hoped to leverage the money that Arkansas has to build the remaining portion of the connector, but Conklin said this might be more of a challenge in the future as the $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program winds down. In 2012, voters approved a 10-year, half-cent sales tax to pay for 36 highway and interstate projects throughout the state.
The application, which was submitted before the Nov. 2 deadline, had the support of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., 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. The previous legislators sent a letter to Chao that 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.”
The grant money would have paid for a 4.8-mile portion of the connector in Missouri. The right of way has been purchased and design completed for that portion of the project. However, a 2.5-mile stretch of the connector in Arkansas, between Benton County Road 34 and the state line, and a new interchange at I-49 and U.S. Highway 71B in northern Bentonville, won’t be built until funding is identified to complete the Missouri portion of the project.
“We cannot have an interstate dead end at the state line,” Conklin said.
If the entire project were in either Arkansas or Missouri and not in both states, Conklin believes that it would’ve been completed. In the past, Missouri had identified the funding to complete its portion of the project to the state line, but Arkansas didn’t have it then. Now, Arkansas has the funding, but Missouri doesn’t.
The gap in I-49 will be completed, but it won’t happen as soon as hoped, Conklin said. In September, the commission agreed to apply for the INFRA grant, and if it received the money, the 18.9-mile segment of I-49, between Arkansas and Missouri, was expected to be completed in 2021 and open in 2022. Over the past 25 years, the two states have worked to complete I-49, between Interstate 40 in Arkansas and Interstate 70 in Kansas City, Mo.