Highway Commissioner discusses study of new river bridge to remove downtown truck traffic

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,792 views 

A truck study, commissioned by the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT), will determine the feasibility of a new U.S. 64 river crossing into downtown Fort Smith, Highway Commissioner Keith Gibson told a group of area residents during a July 29 meeting.

The study by Halff Associates of Little Rock is expected to be completed in early 2023 and will look to identify improvements in and surrounding downtown Fort Smith, said Gibson, who is from the Fort Smith area.

“Fort Smith struggles with, as you all know, the truck traffic in downtown,” Gibson said.

He said downtown merchants and property owners and the city have worked for long time with the ArDoT to find a way to move traffic off Garrison Avenue because truck traffic disturbs those wanting to eat outside at downtown restaurants and interferes with a more pedestrian-friendly Garrison Avenue, he said.

“The problem is, that’s a federal highway. That’s not just a state highway. … So traffic is scheduled to go down that road, truck traffic in particular,” Gibson said. “I know people don’t like studies, but that’s the only thing we can get things done.”

The Fort Smith Board of Directors passed a resolution in November 2018 that authorized an engineering services agreement with Halff for a Fort Smith Downtown Traffic and Truck Study. The study, not to cost more than $151,986, was based on recommendations from the Propelling Downtown Forward Plan, which was adopted by the board in August 2017 as “a master plan addressing specific development and revitalization issues in the downtown and Central Business Improvement District (CBID) areas,” information on the study states.

James Arbuckle, vice president of Halff, and his team spent most of 2019 meeting with key players, looking at survey results and reviewing traffic studies in order to come up with viable solutions to the downtown traffic.

Arbuckle presented the Fort Smith report to the Fort Smith Board of Directors in December. In it, he presented an alternate downtown truck route that included a route suggested by Phil White, downtown business owner and member of the CBID board of commissioners, as well as alternate routes that would take truck traffic off Garrison at Fifth Street and route it towards Kelley Highway. Arbuckle’s report suggested that, the city look at signal phasing at Fifth Street and Garrison Avenue; pedestrian safety improvements at 11th Street and Garrison/Towson avenues; trailblazing (Wayfinding); updating the long range plan to reflect a new truck corridor; and begin a Fifth Street to Kelley Highway corridor study with a concept plan and intersection concepts.

The Fifth Street to Kelley Highway Alternative would use the existing Wheeler Avenue truck route south of Garrison Avenue. North of Garrison, it would follow Fifth Street to Fourth Street between A and B Streets and follow Fourth Street until it intersects with the future Kelley Highway. Truck traffic could then travel east along Kelley Highway to U.S. 71B tying to the existing truck route that connects to Interstate 540.

White’s proposed route limits the stops and number of turns for trucks on Garrison Ave. It starts at the west end of the avenue at the intersection of Second Street. The Phil White Route (PWR) would depart from Garrison Avenue and the Second Street intersection at a skew and head northeast to B Street, east to Fifth Street, then south to Garrison Avenue, continuing southward until it merges with Wheeler Ave. Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken has said the city would move forward with some of the short-term suggestions made by Arbuckle this year.

Gibson said the Fort Smith-commissioned study had a limited scope, and the ArDot study will be better able to determine the feasibility of an alternate downtown river crossing.

Gibson also updated on an ArDot Highway 22 (Rogers Avenue) project that will make interchange and intersection improvements at Rogers Avenue and 74th Street and major widening of the highway from Highway 96 to Bloomer. The Highway 22 project is a $22 million project, Gibson said.

Repavement of Rogers Avenue began the week of July 25. ArDot just finished resurfacing Highway 71 from Zero Street to Greenwood. Wheeler Avenue will be resurfaced beginning around September. And Riverfront Drive will be resurfaced in the future as well. That project will go to bid around November 2022.

Another Fort Smith project includes pavement preservation work, including drainage and sidewalk improvements, on Towson Avenue from Zero Street to Garrison Avenue. That is a partner project with Fort Smith and is tentatively scheduled for late 2022 or early 2023, Gibson said. The estimated cost of the 3.8-mile project is $12.5 million. Fort Smith has committed $2 million to the project.

“Once that project is done, it’s a state highway now, but once that project is done, that will no longer be a state highway. That will be a city highway” Gibson said.

The project will help with drainage problems on the highway and include some beautification elements.

An Interstate 540 project is expected in 2023 that will include seven miles of preservation and repaving at a cost of about $2 million. It was last worked on in 2014, Gibson said. The project will include how to improve the intersection that would take motorists toward Harry Robinson Buick GMC and other car dealerships at the exit on Zero Street.

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