Just from its portamanou name alone, it’s easy to see that Texarkana is a place that belongs to more than just one community. The two cities known as Texarkana serve not just as a central hub for the four states they anchor, but also as a checkpoint for both national transportation and international shipping.
(International shipping in Texarkana? No, Asian freighters aren’t making their way up the Red River just yet, but they’re getting closer than they’ve ever been. Read on.)
Truckers and travelers have long known Interstate 30 as the main passage from Texas to the eastern portion of the United States. It may be the shortest major interstate between two states, but it’s also one of the busiest.
Forty-Nine, No Fight
In the past decade, a controlled access loop has been built around Texarkana, alleviating some of the pressure from I-30 at the state line. A portion of what will become part of Interstate 49 connects the dots on the Arkansas side from U.S. Highway 71 in the north, past the city’s regional airport and then forking in the southeastern part of the city where the I-49 route continues toward Louisiana while the loop continues across to the Texas side.
Interstate 49 is just one of the big road dreams becoming a reality for Texarkana. With its southern terminus in Lafayette, La., I-49 is a planned north-south route that will end in the Kansas City area. From there, travelers can continue north toward the Canadian border via either I-29 or I-35. Interstate 49 will fill in a longitudinal gap that has been missing from the nation’s road map as the only north-south route between Jackson, Miss., and Dallas. Trucks picking up shipments from the Port of New Orleans traveling to the northern plains and beyond will no longer have to go out of their way through Memphis and St. Louis. It will save at least three hours of driving time to get from the Gulf of Mexico to Kansas City, and under normal circumstances, reduce the travel time from New Orleans to less than 12 hours.
The western part of Arkansas will serve a major portion of this planned route with Texarkana, Fort Smith and the quad-cities of Northwest Arkansas all serving as contact points along the way. Missouri has built its portion from Kansas City to just north of its border with Arkansas. Once a bypass is constructed around Bella Vista, it will connect with what is now I-540 and proceed south past Fort Smith.
And while Louisiana’s portion of I-49 comes all the way up from Lafayette to a temporary end on the Arkansas border, waiting for a 10-mile portion to be completed from Doddridge, Ark., it’s the sizable gap between Texarkana and Fort Smith through the Ouachita Mountains that remains the biggest hurdle to clear before I-49 can become a non-stop fast-track through the nation’s middle.
While the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department have long-term plans in place to finish the approximately 170-mile section, a new interstate has made a surprise appearance in Texarkana (if anything in the slow-motion world of road-building could be described as a “surprise” in the first place.) This new development could shift progress on I-49 into a higher gear.
Season of 69
Interstate 69 is another multi-state project being built in stages across the region and also represents a dramatic shift in the way goods will be transported across the country in the 21st century. Its planned path stretches from the Mexican border in Texas to its current southern terminus outside of Indianapolis and then onward to what will remain its northern terminus at the Canadian border near Port Huron, Mich.
Arkansas has long been a part of these plans as a portion of I-69’s planned route, with the highway snaking down from Memphis through the Mississippi Delta before crossing the Mississippi River on a brand new river bridge near Arkansas City. The interstate is slated to pass through McGhee, Monticello (where it would connect with a spur leading north to Pine Bluff) and El Dorado before dipping below the Louisiana border on its way to the Shreveport area.
The new interstate is expected to be an expected economic boon to south Arkansas, but for most of the planning, it’s been a given that Texarkana would only see residual benefits from its neighbors. From the beginning, I-69 was promised to go through Shreveport, 75 miles to the south of Texarkana.
Those plans are still in place, but Texarkana has joined the I-69 family in another way. While I-69 has been sketched, adjusted and inspected since the days when Bill Clinton was president, recent years have seen the state of Texas hitting the acceleration pedal on the project, at least within its own borders. This has brought the highway to Texarkana’s door.
The Alliance for I-69 in Texas is well-aware that its namesake interstate is nicknamed “The NAFTA Highway” for its goal of connecting Canada with Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement. However, the Texans see their ports along the Gulf Coast and in Houston rising in importance once another project south of the border is completed. However, this project is even further south than Mexico – the Panama Canal.
A Man, A Plan, A Canal - Texarkana?
A major expansion of the Panama Canal began in 2007 widening the lanes of the waterway to allow shipping freighters triple the size of what’s currently allowed to navigate between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Currently, most large ships from Asia have the choice of either docking somewhere on the western seaboard of the United States and have their cargo trucked across the country or to make the lengthy detour around the tip of South America to access the eastern seaboard. With a larger Panama Canal, those ships will be able to at last take a shortcut and make their way to Houston or New Orleans in a matter of days instead of weeks.
While the Obama Administration has pushed a $50 billion infrastructure plan to Congress for building or improving ports, bridges and highways in preparation for the vessel traffic, the state of Texas has moved forward in a drastic fashion to make sure those goods will have a place to go once they’ve been unloaded from the freighters. From Houston along its Gulf Coast, highways are being transformed into components of Interstate 69. The state is rallying hard, re-signing and redesignating over a thousand miles of interstate-standard highways in Texas to the I-69 route. These include spurs and connectors with names like I-69E, I-69C, I-69W and I-369.
Interstate 369 is what what will connect Texarkana with this increased number of imports due to appear in the region within the next decade. Taking over what is now U.S. 59, I-369 will be a 115-mile spur reaching down from Texarkana to the vicinity of where the planned I-69 will cross into Texas southwest of Shreveport. The I-369 signs are already up around Texarkana and even online mapping sites display the designation.
Ten years ago, Texarkana had only one interstate. Today, it has the visible makings of three. (One more than West Memphis, the reigning hot spot in Arkansas for busy interstate junctions.) With $513 million to be saved annually by transportation companies across the seven-state area to be served by I-49 and the fast-approaching status of I-69 from the south, it’s a safe bet Texarkana will remain in the middle of it all for decades to come.