What’s not to love about northwest Arkansas? It has a robust economy, plenty of biking and walking trails, cultural attractions and beautiful scenery.
There’s no secret as to why the region, centered on Benton and Washington counties, is so popular. Northwest Arkansas’ population grew by about 24% during the last decade to nearly 550,000 and there are no signs of it slowing.
But all those people have been placing strains on the area’s traffic patterns. Ask an expert about congestion trouble spots, and there will be a list — a long one — and nearly every northwest Arkansas city has one.
Tim Conklin of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission in Springdale is an expert. He is the NWARPC’s assistant director and is the director of the organization’s Northwest Arkansas Regional Transportation Study, which is updated every couple of years.
Conklin said several problem areas have improved in recent years, most notably stretches of Interstate 49 that were expanded to six lanes. Conklin said the Arkansas Economic Development Institute in Little Rock predicts that northwest Arkansas’ population could reach nearly 975,000 by 2045.
“Does it get better or worse? That depends,” Conklin said. “If we continue to add over 100,000 people per decade and have all the job growth in northwest Arkansas, certain areas do show that they will become more and more congested. Congestion on certain areas will be mitigated by improvements that are programmed in our metropolitan improvement plan and our policies to improve walking, biking and [public] transit. That is all helpful, but most of the region sees increases in traffic volume year after year.”
Some of the strain is a result of northwest Arkansas’ geography. The four major cities of the region are lined up one after the other from north to south along I-49, and most of the expansion outside of those cities happens to the west.
The interstate impedes some of the traffic flow because it limits east-west traffic to only a few entry and exit points. That creates choke points for people using the interstate and hinders those attempting to go from one side of the interstate to the other.
“I-49 is a traffic barrier from an east-west standpoint because you have a limited number of ways to get under the highway,” said Chris Brown, Fayetteville’s public works director. “It creates a lot of congestion. Wedington [Drive] and Highway 62 are two corridors identified as very congested because those are the limited east-west routes to get to or through I-49.”
One Wish? A Bypass
One wish for northwest Arkansas planners is the western bypass, basically a north-south route running parallel to I-49 but well to the west.
That would alleviate some of the stress and congestion of I-49. It could also cost at least $250 million, depending on the route chosen, but might eventually benefit current residents’ grandchildren.
“A lot of people are trying to get to I-49,” said Dennis Birge, Bentonville’s transportation director. “At some point we will need to lean on the state to put in a western loop around all these cities.”
In the meantime, cities are doing what they can to help keep traffic flowing. Birge and Brown said their cities use technology to manage traffic; they can tweak the traffic signals to allow more cars to move through an intersection, for example, during a high-traffic period.
“We are continually trying to deal with it,” Birge said. “We adjust the timing on our signals. We were doing it annually; now we are doing it every six months. It helps us keep our main corridors flowing as smoothly as we can. We don’t do that to every signal.”
Ask commuters about the rush hour drive home and the complaint will be the same regardless of the city. It takes forever to get from work to home if the interstate is part of the trip, not because of interstate traffic but because of the delays to get onto the interstate.
“Some of our biggest bottlenecks are where we don’t have other ways to get around,” Conklin said. “When you funnel everyone into some of the interchanges, having completed networks is critical.”
Bentonville’s population grew 54% from 2010 to 54,164 in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Birge said the biggest challenge for the city is expanding city streets to allow for more cyclists and pedestrian traffic.
“I wouldn’t say it is a problem yet,” Birge said. “It is challenging. I think most people have learned our downtown area is kind of slow and there are ways around it if you’re traveling through. If you are going there, you know you are slowing down.”
Brown said Fayetteville’s downtown area can get crowded but traffic actually flows pretty smoothly. He said the city has a well-designed grid system so drivers have numerous route options when going from point A to point B.
When the Northwest Arkansas Council held a meeting years ago to discuss the coming expansion of I-49, an engineer semi-joked that by the time the expansion was completed there would be a need for eight lanes.
Northwest Arkansas’ chances to get ahead of the congestion look more optimistic because of recent state and federal legislation that will provide tax dollars for infrastructure improvements, expansions and renovations. Arkansas voters approved a permanent half-cent sales tax in 2020 that will provide $290 million annually for roads, and the state is expected to receive $3.6 billion from a federal infrastructure law passed in 2021.
Council CEO Nelson Peacock said better planning in housing and transit could help cut commute times or reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
“The significant population growth in northwest Arkansas creates a strain on highways and other types of infrastructure,” Peacock said. “It’s important to not only upkeep existing infrastructure, but also look ahead to determine where the growth is happening and where more infrastructure is needed.
“Few fast-growing regions have managed to keep up with infrastructure, and it will also challenge northwest Arkansas. Fortunately, northwest Arkansas leaders understand the existing and future challenges and are working towards forward-thinking solutions.”
Some of those solutions are easily visible during any drive around the region, highlighted by the construction signs and barrels.
“It takes years to implement highway improvements,” Conklin said. “I cannot imagine northwest Arkansas without I-49. You look at how important I-49 is for all the people in northwest Arkansas and the three Fortune 500 companies and the university just for mobility.
“The good news is it is open and it is done, but we do continue to grow. We still have billions of dollars of needs that need to be implemented.”
Birge noted that the voters recently approved a bond program for Bentonville that will help fund some $173 million in street improvements. It is all about connectivity for the city, Birge said, to make it easier to move about.
Brown said the cities along I-49 must continue to expand street capacity to alleviate traffic on the interstate by providing more options for drivers. City planning is crucial; Brown said no development in Fayetteville, for example, is allowed to be built without a connected network of roads.
“We are always going to be behind the curve, unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying to improve the infrastructure,” Brown said. “There are a lot of strategies that don’t include infrastructure.”