Founded in 1859 on a 15-acre site in what is now the downtown area, Jonesboro incorporated in 1883 with the coming of the railroad. Jonesboro at the time boasted a significant logging industry.
The timber long gone, railroad tracks still crisscross a community that has grown from a population of 75 people at its founding to 80,000-plus inhabitants now, spread across 80 square miles.
A regional hub for retail, banking, education, medical services and industry, the city has a constant need for infrastructure improvement, that is, improved or new roads, bridges and overpasses that can carry ever-increasing amounts of traffic to and from the city as well as around and through it.
It’s no wonder that an audience of elected officials, business and industry representatives and interested citizens packed the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce last month for an hour-long presentation and Q&A session. Chamber officials called the gathering the largest crowd ever to attend a meeting of the Chamber’s Transportation Committee.
Alec Farmer, the Jonesboro businessman who is chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission, and Brad Smithee, district engineer for the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s (ARDOT) District 10 that covers seven Northeast Arkansas counties, led the briefing which covered projects completed, underway or being planned for the area.
The group had plenty to talk about. There is $125 million in highway construction ongoing in and around Jonesboro and well over $300 million in the seven counties of District 10, Smithee noted.
Then Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed Farmer, a Jonesboro native, to a 10-year term on the Highway Commission in January 2015. Farmer has long been interested in government, economic development and highway issues. Also on hand was U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and chairman of that panel’s Highways and Transit Subcommittee.
You will recall that local leaders had long sought an interstate highway designation for the roughly 40-mile leg of U.S. 63 between the Lake David interchange on Interstate 55 in Crittenden County and Jonesboro. The interstate designation was considered essential by economic developers recruiting new business and industry since proximity to an interstate highway was said to be among the first questions site selectors posed to cities.
However, if 63 were designated an interstate, federal bridge regulations would have prohibited travel by agricultural vehicles such as cotton modules and log trucks over the bridges that span the St. Francis floodway.
At the time, the leading proposal for a solution to the problem — construction of a $30 million to $50 million access road for trucks — also would have been impossible.
Crawford sponsored an amendment to the 2016 federal highway bill that made an exemption for the floodway bridges and I-555, aka The Triple Nickel. What is now I-555 was part of the 10-mile stretch of the U.S. 63 Bypass, a two-lane highway with no access control and a number of at-grade intersections. It was built in the early 1970s.
A federal highway “demonstration project” in the 1980s added two lanes and grade separations (overpasses) at certain intersections to control access and improve safety. With some stretches of the original concrete paving about 50 years old, ARDOT awarded two contracts to rehabilitate I-555. The second project is moving ahead of schedule.
The city of Jonesboro and ARDOT partnered to construct bridges over the railroad tracks on Highland and Airport Road to improve safety and prevent cars, trucks and emergency vehicles from being stalled at the tracks. Intersection improvements, Farmer noted, represent ways to make a large improvement in traffic flow with considerably less expense than building new roads. A number of those are underway in Jonesboro.
Perhaps the project on the minds of many is the so-called “East Bypass” which will take an estimated 5,000-10,000 vehicles per day off Red Wolf Boulevard. This will provide an alternate route from the busy Hilltop area to I-55 and provide better access to commercial areas, Farmer said.
Now, 30,000-40,000 vehicles use that over-capacity stretch of Red Wolf. The new road will be built on a new route, not on Moore Road as some residents had suggested. The price tag is roughly $60 million.
Though those are some highlights of the hour-long presentation, perhaps one project is just now coming to the attention of many residents of the area,
The 2017 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Bill contained language designating a portion U.S. 67 in Arkansas, already built to interstate standards, as “Future I-57.” U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., sat on the Senate Appropriations Committee when that designation was made. Arkansas and Missouri are working together to make I-57 a reality.
With U.S. 67 upgraded to interstate standards from North Little Rock to Walnut Ridge, truckers traveling between the South and Chicago have already figured out how to use the road instead of taking I-40 to West Memphis and turning north on I-55 to get to Chicago. Arkansas figures to finish its portion first.
Leaders of years gone by in this corner of the state often complained of being shortchanged on highway funding. But that is not the case today, leaders and members of the audience said, using the list of projects in progress and being planned for the near future as evidence.
With millions in construction under way and millions more planned or in progress, it appears Northeast Arkansas has turned that corner.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.