NWA planners apply for BUILD grant to pay for I-49 gap between Arkansas, Missouri

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 1,889 views 

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission has once again applied for federal funding to complete a 4.8-mile segment of Interstate 49 in Missouri to the state line.

The segment is the only portion of the 18.9-mile Arkansas/Missouri Connector, or the Bella Vista Bypass, that doesn’t have the needed funding identified to complete the project.

On Wednesday (July 25), the planning commission approved applying for $25 million from the Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development (BUILD) program. On April 20, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the $1.5 billion BUILD program for fiscal 2018, and it replaces the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program.

In applying for the BUILD program grant, the commission worked closely with the Northwest Arkansas Council to submit the application, and the Missouri Department of Transportation, Arkansas Department of Transportation, Arkansas and Missouri legislators and businesses in both states support the project, according to the council. Northwest Arkansas Council is a private, nonprofit organization that has worked to advance regional infrastructure projects since 1990.

“U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, in particular, has really gotten involved, contacting the Northwest Arkansas Council and encouraging us to work with the planning commission to seek this grant,” said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the council. “Having Senator Cotton’s voice in Washington in support of this project is helpful on so many levels.

“For the council, finishing I-49 in rural southwest Missouri to better connect it to our region is a never-give-up project, and we’re appreciative of the regional planning commission’s dogged pursuit of getting it done. It’s the single most important infrastructure priority to so many in southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas.”

The existing I-49 comes to an end north of Bentonville. From there, motorists take U.S. Highway 71 and drive through nine intersections with traffic signals in Bella Vista at average speeds of 20 mph or less at peak time before reaching the interstate again in southern Missouri, near Pineville.

“Reducing travel time and improving safety are both extremely important, but it also makes so much sense to do what we can to stretch the economic success of Northwest Arkansas into southwest Missouri,” Peacock said. “The Connector is part of accomplishing all of those goals.”

The 4.8-mile portion of the connector in Missouri would bring the project to the state line. The right of way has been purchased and design completed for that portion of the project. But if it’s not completed, 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. Funding for those projects was already identified through the $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program — a program supported by a 10-year, half-cent sales tax that voters approved in 2012.

Tim Conklin, transportation programs manager for the commission, said nearly $135 million in projects in Arkansas and Missouri will be delayed if the connector is not completed. On July 12, the Missouri Department of Transportation agreed to build the 4.8-mile segment to the state line if it were to receive the $25 million grant. The segment is expected to cost $48 million.

In early June, the planning commission learned it was not expected to receive funding from the $1.5 billion Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program for fiscal years 2017 and 2018. 

In September, the commission agreed to apply for $32.4 million grant from the INFRA program. Conklin explained the funding difference between the INFRA and BUILD grants would be covered by Missouri. On July 12, Missouri agreed to support the project. The planning commission applied for the project July 18, which was the deadline to do so.

The plan to complete the connector remains the same as before with completion in 2021 and an opening in 2022. Construction is expected to take a year, once work starts. The commission expects to hear about whether it would receive the funding in December. When the funding would be dispersed has yet to be determined.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum on this one,” Conklin said, adding he appreciated the support of the Northwest Arkansas Council on the grant.

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