The consensus is that completion of the Interstate 49 corridor in Western Arkansas is essential to providing all the necessary components that will allow the Fort Smith metropolitan area to reach its maximum economic potential.
The few hundred stakeholders, state and local dignitaries and interested parties gathered Thursday (July 14) at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith to discuss the planned extension of I-49 from Alma to Barling and beyond and the impact it would have on the region learned that the extension is on track. They also heard that solutions have been made to save $65 million on a bridge over the Arkansas River and initial ground-breaking of the 13.7 miles of interstate from Alma to Barling should happen this fall.
“Throughout history, there has been only one true way to affect positive economic development (job creation), and that is to build transportation corridors. I-49, when completed, will be a dynamic economic development tool, and a job creator for the State of Arkansas on the magnitude of I-40. For too long, people have traveled north and south outside of Arkansas. We need the economic engine that I-49 will be to correct the wrong and bring that traffic and stimulus to the economy of our state,” said Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, said in response to a question posed by Arkansas Highway Commissioner Keith Gibson of Fort Smith.
Green said the completion of the corridor in the Fort Smith region will give it a unique confluence of transportation hubs that will position Fort Smith in the heart of the American supply chain. UAFS Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley said the completion of the corridor also will help the region better educate Arkansas and invest in the future.
“Folks, this is going to happen,” Gibson said.
There are 180 miles left to build of the interstate in Arkansas between Alma and Texarkana. The first leg of that, the 13.7-mile section between Alma and Barling that will include a bridge over the Arkansas River and have interchanges at Highway 22, Gun Club Road, Clear Creek Road and I-40, is in the planning and design stage. The bridge across the Arkansas River will be east of Trimble Lock & Dam and the U.S. 59 bridge.
Lorie Tudor, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT), said Thursday that planning and design will continue through 2025. Environmental permitting also is in the process and is expected to be complete by later this year, she added. Environmental and design work is budgeted at $10 million, which is already dedicated to the project, Tudor said.
With funding from voter-approved Issue 1, ARDOT has dedicated $270 million for the I-40/I-49 interchange at Alma to Highway 22 and another $270 million for the south part of the interstate from Greenwood to Y City. The Y City connection would take I-49 to the Highway 270 route east to Hot Springs. The 13.7 mile section from Alma to Barling will cost around $710 million, according to ARDOT Spokesman Dave Parker.
ARDOT is expected to have a ground-breaking ceremony and to begin “clearing and grubbing” at the area by High 22 and East H Street in Barling in the fall, Tudor said.
“It’s a small job. … It’s more symbolic than anything else,” Tudor said. “We wanted to do this and have a big celebration and bring Gov. (Asa) Hutchinson in… And we also want to make a statement to the area that we are committed to I-49. It will be a reality.”
According to Tudor, the segment will be open to traffic “by the end of the decade.” Major construction in the area will begin in 2024, and the first stage of construction will be the bridge over the Arkansas River, which is estimated to cost around $250 million. Natalie McCombs and John Blancett with HNTB, which is designing the bridge, said innovations and study has allowed them to cut $65 million off the cost of the bridge.