ArDOT Allots $87M to Unclog 2 Spots Along I-49

ArDOT Allots $87M to Unclog 2 Spots Along I-49
Traffic is often fierce at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Interstate 49 in Fayetteville. The Arkansas  Department of Transportation has a $50 million plan to reconfigure it. (Sarah Bentham)

Good news could be coming soon for drivers who continually find themselves stuck in traffic during their commutes to and through Fayetteville.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation held a public meeting June 14 to discuss reconfiguring and expanding the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Interstate 49. The project has a projected cost of nearly $50 million, but that estimate is almost guaranteed to rise once work begins.

Just two miles north of that intersection, work is expected to restart soon on a long-needed redesign of the interstate’s interchange at Highway 16, also known as Wedington Drive. The $37 million project was postponed shortly after it began in spring 2021 due to engineering issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The two intersections are the critical interchanges at the south end of northwest Arkansas’ population hub. The region’s two most populous counties, Washington and Benton, are home to four major cities from Fayetteville in the south to Bentonville in the north, but a lot of population growth has been to the west.

Northwest Arkansas’ population grew by about 24% during the last decade to nearly 550,000 and there are no signs  the surge is slowing. The two intersections have struggled with heavy volume; ArDOT estimates that traffic on I-49 just north of the MLK intersection averages 62,000 vehicles a day.

Just south of that intersection, traffic averages 20,000 fewer cars. Just north of the Wedington intersection, traffic averages 73,000 daily vehicles.

“Obviously the interstate is the north-south connector, but the east-west traffic is a real challenge,” said Chris Brown, Fayetteville’s public works director. “All the cities are feeling this. We have a limited number of interchanges and we have more people trying to get on I-49 than we have interchange capacity. That’s the issue at this point.”

Start, Stop, Restart

ArDOT believes its new designs for each intersection will mitigate the severe congestion during morning and afternoon rush. The Wedington intersection now sees an average of 37,000 vehicles daily west of the interstate and 25,000 east of the interstate. 

The intersection is a nightmare in busy traffic. There are two traffic signals less than a block apart on the east end of the overpass, with separate traffic from the north exit lane and the frontage road running alongside the interstate. Drivers trying to go north on the interstate after crossing the bridge from the west have to cross oncoming traffic, and there is regularly a line of cars in the turn lane stacked back to the western end of the bridge. The $37 million solution was to install cloverleaf ramps to the interstate to remove the cross-lane traffic, and combine the exit ramp and frontage road into one road. 

Problems moving utilities caused contractor Manhattan Road & Bridge of Tulsa to halt work. That stoppage has lasted a year because of pandemic-related labor and supply chain issues.

“Hopefully some time this summer they will start making progress on that,” Brown said. “Once you get through the light on the west side, it will be basically continuous flow. It will actually be a double ramp so there will be two lanes getting onto the highway. It will have a huge impact. It is a little bit dicey right there now.”

While ArDOT is paying construction costs for the project, the city of Fayetteville has agreed to pay nearly $200,000 for a related project to widen the overpass bridge for pedestrians and cyclists. It includes an extension to tie the path to the Shiloh Trail, part of the trail system of northwest Arkansas.

Welcome to the UA

The MLK interchange redesign at Exit 62 in Fayetteville was more complicated than the Wedington interchange. 

For starters, it is the main interchange for the city and the University of Arkansas, which is east of the interstate. MLK east and west of the interstate is also commercially developed.

ArDOT requested proposals and, in consultation with the city, selected Manhattan Road & Bridge as the contractor. Planners considered cloverleafs and flyover designs but decided they were unworkable or too expensive.

Instead, ArDOT will build an alternative interchange. The on- and off-ramps will be at 15th Street, farther south of their current locations, and lead directly into roundabouts. 

Fifteenth Street, which runs by the university’s baseball stadium and past a host of student and multifamily housing complexes, will be extended over I-49, with the roundabouts anchoring each end. 

The frontage roads along each side of the interstate will be converted to one-way roads, but the designs will have “Texas U-turns.” The dedicated lanes will allow motorists to go from one frontage road to the other without having to get back on I-49 while allowing easier access to the interstate.

“It is a much simpler design and should be less expensive and easier to construct,” said Tom Fisher, alternative delivery project manager for ArDOT. “Not one design fixes it. It’s just a piece to the puzzle of northwest Arkansas with all the growth that is happening to the west and the north. It all starts tying together. 

“It’s keeping up or staying ahead of the growth, and that’s an impossible thing to do in northwest Arkansas. Because of the U of A, this is a critical intersection.”

Fisher said the project is expected to begin in 2024 and will take up to 2½ years to complete. The trick is to continue the work during UA’s busy times — for example, during college football season when thousands of extra autos come to Fayetteville for Razorback games. 

“With a project of this size there is no way you can avoid basketball season and football season,” Fisher said.

Brown said the city and ArDOT have a good working relationship, and that the state agency listened to the city’s concerns about the design. Businesses along the interchange were worried about how the work would affect commerce.

“[ArDOT] has goals that don’t always match up 100% with city goals,” Brown said. “We always try to figure those out. In the end we are just trying to get people where they need to go.”