Board members of the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority renewed the WAIA’s commitment to fighting for the transportation improvement needs of the Sebastian-Crawford counties area at its regular board meeting Wednesday (Jan. 9) where updates were given on road projects impacting Greenwood, Fort Chaffee, and a possible toll road connection.
State Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, who serves as the WAIA executive director, asked the board if the current focus of the agency was still the best way to meet the needs of Crawford and Sebastian counties and the cities within them.
WAIA, a division of Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, monitors existing infrastructure in order to help with planning and development for new shipping locations and methods in the Arkansas River Valley area.
In addition to WAPDD, other development partners include the Van Buren and Fort Smith chambers of commerce, the Fort Chaffee Public Trust, the Northwest Arkansas Council, the Arkansas Department of Transportation and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission – in addition to local government and private sector leadership.
The initial idea behind the development of WAIA was to allow county judges, city administrators and mayors to concentrate more on all the business of their respected cities and counties while WAIA worked with the Arkansas Department of Transportation, investors and other agencies to further the transportation agenda of the area, Pitsch said.
“They need to run their cities and counties, not be on the phone with the (ARDOT) four or more times a week,” Pitsch said. “When this started, we were focused on the big projects — (Interstate 49), an intermodal port, railroads to Chaffee. Because this is our focus, we can look at the small projects too.”
Some of the small projects that Pitsch updated the board on Wednesday were the Arkansas 45 South expansion project that will widen a stretch of Highway 45 South in the southern part of Fort Smith near Pernod Ricard and Zero Mountain that connects U.S. 71 to four traffic lanes plus a turning lane at areas; widening and construction to Highway 255/Zero Street through Chaffee Crossing; and a Greenwood Bypass that would include areas of Arkansas 96 east and south of Greenwood. All projects are now on the ARDOT project list for 2019 and 2020. An environmental study is in the works for the Greenwood Bypass and construction on the other two projects is expected to begin in 2019 or 2020, Pitsch said.
Looking at bigger projects, Pitsch told the board that ARDOT Director Scott Bennett had a study done on the feasibility of a bridge and a roughly 13-mile section of I-49 north of Fort Chaffee that would connect Highway 22 in Sebastian County and the I-40/I-49 interchange in Crawford County to be a toll system. The timing for that section of the interstate would have to be started within the next five years, he said.
“No one wanted to commit to a 13-mile section, but by doing it the way he did, he could see who might be interested in a toll contract on the highway without having to commit to starting the entire project,” Pitsch said. “It was a very smart way to do it. We don’t know if any of the (interstate) will be toll, but by using funds for the study, it was a commitment that construction on that section would have to be started within five years.”
Pitsch also reported to the board that a contingency from an economic development agency in Louisiana would be in Fort Smith Thursday to meet with area corporations “to develop a catalyst” for partnerships in the area.
“I can’t go into details on what is going on because those we are working with want confidentiality,” Pitsch said. “But in summary, there is a lot going on. It takes take time and effort to impress others to come invest in our area.”