Many might believe a new bridge across the Arkansas River from Oklahoma into Fort Smith could alleviate congestion and truck traffic in downtown Fort Smith, but the answer is not as simple as that.
“I know a popular option that has been suggested is to just build a new bridge. Find a point and build a new bridge. That is a tad expensive and certainly would involve getting Oklahoma on board. I can’t say what the extent of their interest is at this point,” said Dave Parker, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT).
ARDOT held a public involvement meeting concerning improvements to U.S. 64 in Fort Smith Thursday (March 10) in the east building of the River Park Events building at Harry E. Kelley Park.
U.S. 64 enters Fort Smith from Oklahoma across the Garrison Avenue Bridge. It follows Garrison Avenue to 10th/11th Street where it turns northwest to become Midland Boulevard and continue into Van Buren and further east.
“Congestion, really for a good reason, continues to grow, especially this area of downtown. There are concerns from downtown merchants as to the amount of truck traffic and overall traffic and how do we not slow down the growth of commerce that everyone wants, but somehow help move that traffic elsewhere so it’s better for everyone,” Parker said.
Arkansas Highway Commissioner Keith Gibson told area residents last summer that ARDOT had commissioned a truck study to determine the feasibility of a new U.S. 64 river crossing into downtown Fort Smith. The study by Halff Associates of Little Rock will look to identify improvements in and surrounding downtown Fort Smith, Gibson said. He also said Garrison Avenue is a state highway, which limits what officials in Fort Smith can do to reroute traffic.
Parker said ARDOT has heard from business owners and representatives and the most popular opinion is to put in a new bridge.
“That is one option. I don’t want to rule that out. But then you’ve got others who suggest to take the current road and shift it accordingly. Ok, but then where do you move it? North, south, east of where it is now? Obviously that is going to impact a population. You’ve got to look at that. You’ve got to look at the environmental impact,” Parker said. “This is not going to be an easy decision.”
That is why a study has been commissioned. Parker said ARDOT is hoping to hear from as many people as possible.
“We want to feel like we heard from everyone and everyone has had their opportunity to voice their opinions,” he said.
He said the ARDOT has heard from many that they understand the truck traffic needs to come through the downtown because it’s convenient for the business. They just want it moved a little, he said. He also noted that any change would impact the trucking industry because it could add more time to their route, which costs money, especially in terms of fuels.
Information given at the meeting Thursday estimated that 26,700 vehicles cross the Garrison Avenue Bridge daily in 2022. That is estimated to grow to 30,400 daily by 2045. Of that 26,700, 4% is estimated to be truck traffic. Of the truck traffic crossing the bridge into Fort Smith, 44% turns to go down U.S. 71 and 29% continues on 64 toward Van Buren.
This is the second recent study on the traffic downtown. 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 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.
That study examined seven truck routing scenarios to reduce the impacts of large trucks traveling through downtown and how to reduce delays and congestion. This study, ARDOT information said, further explores alternatives given in that study as well as additional alternatives north and south of the existing U.S. 64 bridge.
The city’s study came with recommendations for alternate downtown truck routes that included a route suggested by Phil White, downtown business owner and member of the Central Business Improvement District board of commissioners, as well as alternate routes that would take truck traffic off Garrison at Fifth Street and route it towards Kelley Highway. Halff’s report suggested 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.
Parker said ARDOT hoped to have at least the two most viable solutions by the end of the year. ARDOT has said no construction funds have been dedicated to highway improvements that the study might recommend.
“When we do make a decision on is it a new bridge, is it rerouting the current route, not everyone is going to be happy. Our goal overall is what is the most efficient, safe and, moneywise, the smartest thing to do,” Parker said.
If the bridge becomes more of an option, there will have to be meetings with Oklahoma, he said.
“There will be federal officials involved, which is not an obstacle that would prevent the bridge but it just adds another layer to it,” Parker said.