The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has gotten initial approval to designate two sections of highway as Interstate 49.
Plans have been in the works for 30 years for a 1,700-mile interstate corridor that would connect the Gulf of Mexico with Canada and run through western Arkansas.
As sections of the highway are completed, I-49 signs have gone up in Missouri and Louisiana, but not yet in Arkansas.
The approved sections include 73 miles of Interstate 540 from Alma north to Bella Vista and 42 miles of Arkansas 549 from Texarkana south to the Louisiana state line, said Randy Ort, a spokesmanfor the Highway Department.
The approval came from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials at an Oct. 18 meeting in Denver.
But final approval must come from the Federal Highway Administration, which received the state’s application last month.
“They have the information,” said Ort. “We’re just waiting to hear back from them. We don’t foresee any problems.”
Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway Department, said he’d like to have final approval by Christmas, but that may be too optimistic.
Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said Christmas is possible.
“I think that sounds like a very reasonable goal,” he said.
“The proposal from the state is still being reviewed, so we don’t have any way to ballpark how long it’ll take.”
After the I-49 designation is approved on the federal level, it will take a while longer before the new signs go up and the old ones come down, Ort said. The process requires educating the public, making new signs and installing them, he said.
“We have survived since 1999 with Interstate 540,” he said. “Surely we can last a little bit longer before the new signs go up.”
I-49 has been in the planning stages since the early 1980s, said Curt Green of Texarkana, Ark., and president of the I-49 International Coalition, which was formed in 2002 to promote completion of the project.
The interstate will stretch from New Orleans to Kansas City, Mo., where it will connect with Interstate 29, providing a 1,700-mile interstate corridor from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, said Gard Wayt of Shreveport, who is executive director of the I-49 International Coalition.
“I-49 will cross nine existing east-west interstates,” he said.
“That’s going to form a transportation grid that goes right through the heart of America.”
Such a grid would be good for commerce and tourism, Wayt said.
The longest section to be built is about 180 miles from Texarkana to Fort Smith through the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas. I-49 will follow the route of U.S. 71 in western Arkansas.
“Between Texarkana and Fort Smith, we’re kind of like a dead zone in I-49,” Green said.
Ort said it will cost about $2.8 billion to complete I-49 in Arkansas, and the Highway Department doesn’t have money available for the work.
Meanwhile, long sections of the highway have been finished and designated as I-49 on both sides of Arkansas - in Louisiana and Missouri.
“All three states have been pushing for it,” Ort said of the designation.
“Although the pavement has been in place for some time is some places, the designation is becoming a reality.” PAST ‘DISAPPROVAL’
Bennett said Missouri’s approval to put up I-49 signs from Kansas City to Pineville, Mo., prompted the Arkansas Highway Department to file its most recent request. The I-49 signs went up in Missouri in December.
The Highway Department first requested the I-49 designation in 2007, but it was “disapproved” by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ route-numbering committee because the “road is not yet under construction,” according to records.
Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the Highway Department, said the designation was rejected because a funding mechanism wasn’t in place at the time for the Bella Vista bypass, but now it is.
Construction of the first two lanes of the bypass will be funded with federal revenue and state sales-tax revenue, he said.
Another factor, Straessle said, is that until last year, federal regulations didn’t allow designation of an interstate with the same number as a U.S. highway in the same state.
U.S. 49 goes through eastern Arkansas, from Piggott south to Jonesboro to Brinkley to Helena-West Helena.
But that regulation changed last year with a law known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21, Straessle said.
Bennett said he would have been surprised if the American Associationof State Highway and Transportation Off icials had rejected the application this time.
Green said Arkansas will likely be the last state to finish its section of I-49.
“It’s conceivable that 99 percent of I-49 will be completed in every stateexcept for Arkansas from Texarkana to Fort Smith,” Green said.
Ort said changing the highway designations to I-49 will be time-consuming and expensive, but it’s something the department requested and welcomes.
“For route continuity between Louisiana and Missouri, I think this is a good thing,” he said.
“Basically, it has existed south of us and north of us, so this makes perfect sense.”
Bennett said the change will be good for Arkansas’ “psyche.”
The state will be along another major interstate thoroughfare, this one going to a foreign country.
Besides the I-49 signs, the application the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials approved included “future I-49 signs” for two sections that are still under construction.
Those segments are the 14-mile Bella Vista bypass and a 6-mile section of U.S. 71 on the south side of Fort Smith to Arkansas 22 at Barling.
The section near Fort Smith is scheduled to be completed in June.
A 5-mile section from Doddridge to the Louisiana state line is to be done in May. Ort said it would likely be completed before the Highway Department is ready to put I-49 signs up along the route, so it has been approved for the I-49 signs.
“It just doesn’t make sense to have to keep renumbering things when it’s clear it’s part of the interstate system,” said Bennett, referring to Arkansas 549 south of Texarkana.
Bennett said people in Mena and De Queen may not be seeing the progress, but it’s happening in other parts of the state.
“There’s been a significant amount of progress made,” he said.
“There’s still a long way to go, but we want to celebrate the successes we’ve had so far.”
Northwest Arkansas, Pages 12 on 10/27/2013