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Exception to Road Rule Helps Northeast Arkansas Get I-555

2 min read

It has taken more than four decades, but northeast Arkansas finally has an interstate.

U.S. Highway 63, which connects Interstate 55 in Memphis with Jonesboro, has been officially designated as Interstate 555. A ceremony giving the highway its interstate designation took place Friday at St. Bernards Auditorium in Jonesboro.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., and U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., were among the attendees.

“This will significantly impact the economy in this part of the state,” Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department district 10 Engineer Walter McMillan told Arkansas Business.

An interstate will be a key tool in luring industries to the region, McMillan said.

The state and federal government has spent about $250 million since the 1960s upgrading the highway to interstate quality, according to information released by Crawford’s office.

But there was one lingering problem that had to be solved before the highway could be achieve interstate designation.

When a highway becomes an interstate, it qualifies for significantly more federal funds, McMillan said. But vehicles on the interstate must adhere to stricter federal regulations.

Agriculture-related vehicles such as tractors and combines can’t travel on interstates unless they meet these requirements, and trucks have to follow all federal bridge weight requirements, McMillan said.

That would pose a significant problem for farmers near the St. Francis floodway bridge near Marked Tree. A three-mile stretch of Highway 63 — from Marked Tree to the Payneway — includes the bridge and is heavily used by farmers.

Much of the land in the area is sunken, and heavy equipment cannot be moved on it, McMillan said. If farmers are unable to use the highway and bridge, the detour around this sunken area could be as much as 90 miles. Building a separate road to accommodate tractors and combines might have cost up to $50 million, Crawford said.

So Crawford submitted a proposal in Congress to pass an exception to rules barring heavy equipment along the stretch, and the measure passed.  

Now that the highway is I-555, the federal government will pay for 90 percent of any approved projects. McMillan said parts of the new interstate must be repaved, and that is where the state will focus its efforts in the near future.

“This is going to give the city of Jonesboro greater access to Memphis and points beyond,” McMillan said. “It should be a good economic development recruiter for the region.”

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