Northwest Arkansas to receive $25 million BUILD grant for I-49 Bella Vista bypass

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 1,675 views 

Northwest Arkansas will receive a $25 million federal grant to build a 4.81-mile segment of Interstate 49 in Missouri and to complete the 18.9-mile Arkansas/Missouri connector, or the Bella Vista bypass.

When the bypass is completed, it ultimately will allow for the completion of I-49, between I-40 in Fort Smith and I-70 in Kansas City, Mo. For northbound motorists, I-49 comes to an end in northern Bentonville, before resuming in Pineville, Mo.

U.S. Highway 71 fills the gap between the interstate sections, and about 50,000 motorists per day travel the highway through nine intersections with traffic signals in Bella Vista.

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission applied for the grant on July 18, and when it receives the money, it will be given to the Missouri Department of Transportation to complete the $48 million segment, between Pineville and the state line. This will be the largest federal grant the commission has received, and the money will come from the $1.5 billion Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program, which has replaced the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program.

The Arkansas/Missouri connector has the support of transportation departments in Arkansas and Missouri, U.S. legislators and the Northwest Arkansas Council.

U.S. Sen Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said he received a phone call earlier today from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao that the commission had received the grant, and the commission was one of more than 800 applicants. He expects the grant money to be distributed this month.

“Obviously that’s great news for the region and for economic growth there,” Cotton said. “It’s not just good for Northwest Arkansas but for the entire state and region because that’s a key corridor for commerce both within the United States, and between Mexico, the United States and Canada. It’s closing the final mileage of four-lane controlled access highway between Fort Smith and Kansas City. Fort Smith being located on I-40 and on the Arkansas River, that means that goods can move now north to south without any doubt about orderly flow or any need for diverted traffic. That’s good for folks in Benton County and Washington County, but it’s good for everyone throughout Arkansas that is engaged in trade going to the north or coming from north down to south. It’s going to be good for jobs in the region and all across the state.”

It’s the council’s highest project of regional significance for Northwest Arkansas, said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. And it was the top priority when he started at the council Aug. 1, 2017.

“We’re pretty excited about getting that done,” Peacock said. “It’s been in the works for a couple of decades now. We had a mismatch of funding back in the early 2000s. Missouri had the funding to complete that part, and Arkansas didn’t. In 2012, we passed the sales tax for highway construction. Now, we have the money, and Missouri hasn’t. So the only way we were going to be able to close that gap was to come together and apply for this federal grant.”

Cotton said he worked to help the Department of Transportation and planning commission understand each other’s objectives and intent over the summer after the commission didn’t receive funding from a previous federal grant. He explained it as an unusual situation in which Arkansas had the money but needed work completed in Missouri before it could be used. In part, this situation contributed to why the region didn’t receive a previous grant.

In September 2017, the planning commission agreed to apply to receive $32.4 million from the $1.5 billion Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program to complete the project. In June, the commission learned it would not receive that funding.

Afterward, Cotton said he spoke to Chao multiple times and the White House about the significance of the project for the region and encouraged the commission to apply again for federal funding.

“We were able to hold our coalition together and prevail this time around,” Peacock said. “For both highway departments, being able to close off this important corridor is really important, certainly for our business community and for the potential economic expansion and continued growth of Northwest Arkansas. It’s good all the way around for us.”

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., explained the project is a great example of states working together. He has been involved in it for the past two decades.

“It’s just a matter of great partnership,” said Boozman, adding that “the federal government has provided the dollars to kick it over the edge.”

Boozman explained the significance of the project is that one of the first things industry looks at when they come to an area is interstate availability and how goods are moved. The completion of the project will reflect positively on that and help to reduce traffic congestion in the growing region.

U.S. legislators, including Cotton and Boozman, sent a letter July 18 to Chao expressing their support for the project. The $25 million grant would allow for $91 million in state and federal money to be used, the letter showed. The Arkansas projects that would be completed with the money include the interchange at the start of the existing Bella Vista bypass in northern Bentonville and the remaining 2.5-mile segment of the bypass in Arkansas, from Benton County Road 34 to the state line.

Work on the interchange — the remaining segment of the bypass in Arkansas and the 4.8-mile portion in Missouri — are expected to be completed in early 2022. Designs have been completed and right of way has been purchased for those projects. Before work can start on the Missouri segment, environmental documents need to be updated, and this should be completed in about a year, said Tim Conklin, transportation programs manager for the commission.

“Completing the interstate in the region, having so much of the already voter-approved half-cent sales tax money, (and) to be able to move forward with it, it’s great for the region. It’s great for the state of Arkansas,” Conklin said. “The voters said they wanted to see these projects built and we’re going to build them in Arkansas now. It’s a win for everybody, the state of Missouri, the state of Arkansas and the nation.”

Over the past 25 years, Missouri and Arkansas have worked to completed I-49 between I-40 and I-70, and when the 18.9-mile connector is complete, an uninterrupted 270 miles of interstate between Kansas City and Fort Smith will be completed. In 1991, Congress designated the interstate as high priority corridor No. 1.

“Today’s funding announcement is a game changer that will do more than just upgrade the I-49 corridor – it will transform and modernize our local transportation system to support Arkansas families and the growth of our state,” U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said in a statement. “This investment, which I have tirelessly advocated for, will increase travel safety, decrease congestion, create jobs, and enhance the economic vitality of our region.”

Arkansas also received a $20 million BUILD grant for a bypass and interchange in Hot Springs on Thursday (Dec. 6).

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