Arkansas, Missouri Join in Seeking Money for I-49

Looking south, traffic on U.S. Highway 71 travels over the state line into Arkansas – but not before proceeding through yet another traffic light.
Looking south, traffic on U.S. Highway 71 travels over the state line into Arkansas – but not before proceeding through yet another traffic light. (Google Maps)
Information source: Arkansas Department of Transportation
Information source: Arkansas Department of Transportation (Map source: Mapbox)

Another stretch of Interstate 49 may be closer to completion. Or closer to the money being found to pay for the work to bring the highway closer to completion.

The main stretch of emptiness is nowhere near finished. Approximately 150 miles between Fort Smith and Texarkana are still just wishful thinking on the part of government and business leaders.

SEE: Lack of Funding Continues To Sideline Interstate 49

One stretch that could be completed is what is best known as the Bella Vista Bypass. Yes, leaders on both side of the Missouri-Arkansas state line have renamed the project the “I-49 Missouri-Arkansas Connector,” which is a silly name that I won’t use again in this column.

People on both sides of the state line also thought of a silly name to call the Missouri-Arkansas college football game (the “Battle Line Rivalry”). We don’t have to call things by their silly made-up names.

Anyway, the fine folks at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission have applied for a $25 million grant from the federal government to help with the Bella Vista Bypass construction. The grant would be from the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Developments fund of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The commission had applied earlier this year for an Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant. The INFRA program gave out its $1.5 billion to 26 projects, denying Arkansas’ application.

Transportation departments have to apply for grants nowadays because traditional funding methods are woefully inadequate for infrastructure needs. But that’s another column you’ve probably already read a few times.

The commission, in a news release from the Northwest Arkansas Council, said it had worked closely with the council and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton on the application. Maybe Cotton’s interest will help Arkansas’ (and Missouri’s) chances of getting some cash this go around.

“Having Senator Cotton’s voice in Washington in support of this project is helpful on so many levels,” said Council President and CEO Nelson Peacock. “For the Council, finishing I-49 in rural southwest Missouri to better connect it to our region is a never-give-up project, and we’re appreciative of the Regional Planning Commission’s dogged pursuit of getting it done. It’s the single most important infrastructure priority to so many in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas.”

Another 6 miles of the bypass was opened in May for a total of 12 miles. The Arkansas Department of Transportation built the section with just two lanes to save money; it still cost $52.7 million.

ArDOT set aside many millions to finish the bypass if and when Missouri came up with the money it needs to complete its 5-mile section. Arkansas’ remaining section is 2.5 miles that would connect County Road 34 to the state line.

The council’s release said that Missouri has decided to pony up $22 million for its share while Arkansas has $35.2 million for its stretch. Arkansas has another $51.4 million to fancy up the interchange where Highway 71 meets I-49.

When Arkansas opened the new section, it reported that Missouri was short $30 million for the completion of its section. A $25 million federal grant would presumably help bridge that gap.

“We have the funding set aside and we’re ready to go when Missouri moves forward to make its connection,” ArDOT Director Scott Bennett said at the time.

I’m sure I speak for everyone and anyone who has ever tried to drive from northwest Arkansas to Joplin or Kansas City or anyplace north when I say how great it would be if the grant was awarded and Bella Vista could be bypassed. Nothing against Bella Vista, of course, since I found our family’s wonderful cat Captain Chubbs at its animal shelter a couple of years ago.

But driving through Bella Vista when all you want to do is get to Missouri and points beyond can be extraordinarily frustrating. The Bella Vista stretch is the only spot on I-49 north of I-40 where drivers have to re-enter the land of stop-and-go traffic.

Finishing the bypass, the council said, would let drivers avoid nine traffic signals. Nine.

Let me avoid nine traffic signals and you can name the bypass anything you’d like.