Conway Growth Produces New Airport, Strains Streets And Highways

Conway Growth Produces New Airport, Strains Streets And Highways
The new airport, Cantrell Field, is also seen as a major upgrade in terms of safety and navigation, and demand for hangar space is prompting new construction. (Karen E. Segrave)

Conway’s rapid growth over nearly 20 years has resulted in a mixed bag of results when it comes to transportation infrastructure. On the positive side, in 2014 the city opened a new municipal airport, Cantrell Field, which dramatically increased the type of aircraft local facilities could handle, improving the city’s profile among prospective businesses.

“Generally speaking, for people who are looking to move a business, the first impression they’re going to get is of your airport,” said Josh Zylks, airport manager. “Now, the chamber doesn’t have to tell companies they’re going to have fly into Little Rock and drive up here because their airplane is too big for our little, dinky, old airport. We are an airport that shows very well.”

The airport is served by Runway 4-22, a concrete, 5,500 feet by 100 feet runway and full-length, parallel taxiway. Airfield lighting is provided by state-of-the-art LEDs and the airport is served by GPS WAAS/LPV approaches. In addition, the city operates the fixed base operation as a branded Phillips 66 dealer. Both Jet A and 100LL fuel are offered full service, and self-serve 100LL is available 24 hours a day.

Zylks said the airport’s expanded runway and 6,300-SF terminal have steadily drawn new business customers.

“We have 62 based aircraft at the new airport; that’s up about 40 percent from what we were at the old location,” he said. “Correspondingly, we’ve seen in the neighborhood of about a 30-40 percent bump in fuel sales to go along with the increased, based aircraft count.

“Most of the on-demand charter operators’ company regulations prohibited them from using a runway as short as we had. With the new facility we’ve started to see that business start to pick up, especially over the last eight to 10 months.”

Cantrell Field opened to a measure of pent-up demand, and available T-hangars were quickly snapped up. Larger aircraft hangar space is plentiful, however, thanks to the facility’s 431-acre building site.

“The airport itself — where it was built, the land that was acquired and the infrastructure that’s in place — was obviously done with growth in mind,” Zylks said. “If somebody called me tomorrow and said ‘Hey I want to sign a lease and build a 10,000 square foot hangar,’ I’ve got a spot that they can go to tomorrow and start building.”

Things may be well-positioned for growth through the air, but back on the ground, increasing vehicular traffic presents ongoing challenges. Finley Vinson, director of the Conway Street and Engineering Department, said most of Conway’s issues are not unlike what other communities face, although the city’s three college campuses combined with growth and expansion of local businesses produce traffic volumes that have demanded creative solutions.

“One thing that we are known for is the number roundabouts that we have,” Finley said, noting the traffic management tactic was first utilized nearly 20 years ago. “We’ve got more roundabouts than any other city in the state. They’ve been a huge success both from a public acceptance standpoint and from a traffic management standpoint.”

Problems in other areas aren’t as easily solved, particularly retail-heavy stretches along the state highways that stripe the city, including US 64, US 65, AR 60 and, of course, Interstate 40. One example, Oak Street, which overlays the five-lane US 64, is home to some of the largest and newest retail development in Conway and is one of only four access points to the Interstate within the city limits. In one half-mile stretch, what Vinson called “a traffic engineer’s’ nightmare,” Oak Street has seven traffic lights.

“The Interstate is both a blessing and curse to Conway; it’s a blessing obviously because we’ve got a six-lane arterial that runs through the center of town that provides a lot of mobility,” Vinson said. “The difficulty is that because of the controlled access there are only a handful of ways to get from the west side of town to the east side of town across the Interstate.

“Of these, Oak Street in particular is the one that’s most central and easily the one that is most heavily traveled and congested. It’s known to be kind of the place that everybody wants to avoid, but where everybody has to be if they want to get from one side of town to the other.”

Bottlenecks along Oak Street, and to a lesser degree Dave Ward Drive one exit up, stumped previous traffic engineers and an outside traffic consultant. Even the state highway department has attempted to solve the puzzle, with limited success.

Thankfully, ongoing projects demonstrate the city has learned from the sins of the past and is taking steps to construct new thoroughfares more systematically. Three projects are currently underway, at a cost of more than $30 million, to bring new developments online and help the traffic picture in the process.

They include a south interchange to improve access to the Conway industrial park, widening of Dave Ward Drive and — the largest of the three projects — improving streets and building a bridge to handle the increased traffic anticipated with the completion of new retail.

“One of the things that we’re doing as part of the Central Landing development is adding a bridge over I-40 to connect the development with the Conway Commons development,” Vinson said. “Both the city of Conway and state highway department anticipate that’s going to be one of the best things we’ve done for mobility, traffic relief and alleviating traffic congestion in Conway in a very long time.

“The overpass is the largest chunk of money, about $10 million of the roughly $30 million we’re spending on all these projects. But it’s easily the most important as it’s going to be very beneficial not just to this property but to the city as a whole.”

Such complex projects, involving state roads to boot, make precise coordination with the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department crucial. Scott Bennett, state highway director, echoed Vinson’s assessment that the things that make Conway attractive also present the most challenges.

“When you talk about economic development, one of the biggest advantages is exposure, and when you have a major interstate that connects your city it really provides you with a lot more opportunities,” he said. “At the same time, the biggest challenge in Conway has been the fast rate of growth that has resulted.”

Bennett said that while the state enjoys a positive working relationship with Conway, shrinking infrastructure dollars limit much of what the department could do to advance projects.

“Trying to maintain and improve a 16,400-mile highway system, which is the 12th largest highway system in the nation, we’re always going to be playing catchup. We’re never going to have enough money to meet needs in a timely manner,” Bennett said. “One of the things that really helped working with Conway is they brought local money to the table, allowing us to do a lot more work in the area than we would have been able to do otherwise.”