Governors, legislators and highway department officials from Arkansas and Missouri were among a crowd of at least 200 people who gathered Thursday (Sept. 30) to celebrate the opening of the nearly 20-mile Bella Vista Bypass, or Missouri-Arkansas Connector.
Officials highlighted the economic and safety benefits the new Interstate 49 segment will have on Northwest Arkansas and southwestern Missouri. The new I-49 segment consisted of six projects totaling more than $220 million beginning in February 2011. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson joined state legislators and officials at the Arkansas-Missouri state line for the celebration.
“This is an incredible economic opportunity for tourism, for business,” said Hutchinson, before pointing out the beauty of the surrounding hills that motorists will see as they drive the new I-49 segment. “This is important for a lot of different reasons for Missouri and Arkansas.”
State and federal officials have discussed the need for the bypass for more than 25 years. The completion of the project will link 265 miles of interstate from Fort Smith to Kansas City, Mo.
Emery Sapp & Sons of Columbia, Mo., was hired to complete the final two segments of the project in Arkansas, including the $66.59 million interchange at U.S. Highway 71B in northern Bentonville and the $35.52 million highway segment from Benton County Road 34 to the state line. Emery Sapp & Sons also was hired to complete the final segment of the project in Missouri. The company started on the $70.3 million project in April 2020.
Kolb Grading of St. Charles, Mo., and APAC-Central of Fayetteville completed other bypass segments. The projects were paid for with a combination of state and federal money, including receipts from the half-cent state sales tax for highway projects and a $25 million grant from the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program.
Dave Parker, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT), said the new bypass will open to traffic by 10 a.m. Friday (Oct. 1).
ArDOT Director Lorie Tudor expects the next I-49 segments between Fort Smith and Texarkana to be completed in phases. A timeline to fill the 164-mile gap in I-49 between those two cities has yet to be determined. The price tag was previously estimated at $3 billion.
However, receipts from the half-cent sales tax that was renewed in November will go toward a $540 million segment of the project south of Fort Smith, Tudor said. Work includes a $270 million project between Interstate 40 in Alma and Arkansas Highway 22, and another $270 million project between Greenwood and Y City. Construction on these projects is expected to start within five years.
“With the passage of Issue 1 that recently passed in 2020, we have additional funding for the future, and we’re going to start to expand the footprint of I-49 from Fort Smith south with a new bridge across the Arkansas River,” she said. “We’re going to build two of the ultimate four lanes, and get all the way down to (U.S. Highway) 270 at Y City. That will be the next big piece of I-49 that we have on the books.”