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story.lead_photo.caption Work continues Wednesday on an Interstate 49 interchange in Bentonville, but plans for an I-49 bypass at Bella Vista were put on hold after Missourians voted down funding for their state’s part of the project. - Photo by Ben Goff

A plan to connect Interstate 49 traffic around Bella Vista is now on indefinite hold after Missouri voters defeated a proposed amendment Tuesday that would have funded their state's portion of the project.

A map showing the planned Bella Vista bypass.

The Bella Vista bypass was designed to route interstate traffic around the western edge of Bella Vista near I-49's Exit 93, rejoining I-49 near Pineville, Mo. The project was estimated to cost Arkansas taxpayers $150 million, and Missouri taxpayers $50 million, said Becky Baltz, district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation's southwest district.

But Missouri Amendment 7, which would have provided an estimated $540 million a year for Missouri highway and road construction through a statewide three-fourths percent sales tax, failed to pass by nearly a 3-to-2 ratio Tuesday night, leaving the Arkansas portion of the project more of an extensive spur than a bypass.

The amendment would have funded a list of more than 800 highway and road projects, including the portion of the bypass between Pineville and the state line. Five percent of the total tax revenue would have been allocated to Missouri cities, and another 5 percent to counties, Baltz said.

The center 3 miles of the bypass were completed in April. Another 6-mile section, connecting with I-49 south of Bella Vista, is scheduled to be completed in 2016. The northwesternmost section, which ends near Hiawasse, is scheduled to be completed later this year.

Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Danny Straessle said contingency plans were kept in mind when department personnel designed the construction schedule for the bypass, given the history of "missed connections" between the two states regarding the project.

In 2012, the Missouri Department of Transportation pledged $40 million to construct the 6-mile portion of the proposed bypass, from Pineville to the Arkansas line. Although the Arkansas Highway Department lacked the funds to build its share of the bypass at the time, a half-percent sales tax passed that November subsequently provided the needed cash for the project.

In August 2013, however, the Missouri agency withdrew the proposition, reallocating the funds to projects in the Kansas City area. The Missouri portion of the bypass was later added to the list of projects that would have been funded through Amendment 7.

"Our plan will remain as is," Straessle said. "[The Missouri vote] isn't impacting anything we're doing, because we've had a plan in place for quite some time, based on how this may come out for our friends to the north."

Construction of the current bypass ends at Benton County Road 34, at the western edge of Bella Vista, about 2½ miles shy of the Missouri border. If the Highway Department were to continue construction of the highway to the Missouri state line, it would literally be a road to nowhere, Straessle said.

"There's nothing it could provide connectivity to at all," Straessle said.

All construction to date on the bypass has been of the two-lane variety, Straessle said. Once completed, it would have cost an additional $50 million to expand the entire Arkansas portion of the bypass to four lanes, something Straessle said the department isn't likely to do if it never connects the bypass to Missouri.

"There's no point in building [the additional lanes] if there's nothing to connect it to," Straessle said. "Given the traffic projections for the area right now, the road that's being constructed will handle the folks in western Bella Vista, Gravette and Hiawasse.

"The ultimate four-lane is really only going to serve a good purpose if you have that through-traffic coming down through Missouri. And it doesn't look like we're going to have that in the foreseeable future."

The final 2½ miles of the bypass were projected to cost about $20 million, Straessle said. Straessle said the department will have to weigh what should be done with those funds, which were allocated but never spent.

"That's one of the considerations our engineers and planners and the commission will have to decide -- how long do we hang on to the money that's allocated for that extension of the project before it gets reallocated somewhere else?" Straessle said. "We've got some contingencies built in, but we'll still have to go back to the drawing board to figure other details out."

Baltz said funding for road construction in Missouri is constitutionally provided and is not subject to the normal state budgeting process. As such, she said it's unlikely that the state's governor or any other entity will provide special funding for Missouri's portion of the Bella Vista bypass.

"I have never known of another highway construction project to be funded separately from other funds in Missouri," Baltz said. "We've never had the governor commit other funds to highway projects."

John McLarty, transportation planner for the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said that even if the bypass ultimately truncates short of the Missouri border, it will still prove to be a useful commuting road for area residents.

"Every segment being built is a usable segment," McLarty said. "You've got the residents on the west side of Bella Vista, you've got the residents in Gravette. There's more people than you think living in that western half of Bella Vista."

A Section on 08/07/2014

Print Headline: Bella Vista bypass on ice after Missouri rejects tax

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