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The long-term fix for traffic woes around Interstate 49 in Bentonville and Rogers will take a little longer.

Construction is scheduled to start this year on a new interchange and road extension for Eighth Street in Bentonville just north of Northwest Arkansas Community College. A redesigned interchange planned for South Walton Boulevard/Walnut Street, also known as U.S. 71 Business, went back to the drawing board when urban planners realized it would mean a dividing median on busy thoroughfares in Bentonville and Rogers.

The initial changes called for the interstate bridge to be widened and long exit lanes that would have left medians down the center of South Walton Boulevard almost to Medical Center Parkway, said Mike Churchwell, Bentonville project engineer.

“Everything was going to be a ‘right in, right out,’” Churchwell said.

The dividing median would have reached past 45th Street in Rogers, said Lance Jobe, project engineer for Rogers.

The stretch of the median design also would have cut a planned traffic light for Moberly Lane, Churchwell said. There are 13 car dealerships, 400 apartments, the Sam’s Club home office and a fire station on or near Moberly Lane, he said. With a median, ambulances would have to go down the road and make a U-turn to reach a traffic accident they could see from across the street, Churchwell said.

Changing the style of the interchange would require an additional $6 million because the interstate bridge would have to be longer to accommodate more lanes of traffic underneath. Earlier plans called for it to be widened, but didn’t make it longer.

The redesigned roadway will have more than one turn lane entering and exiting the highway, Jobe said.

Two directions of traffic will be able to turn left simultaneously instead of one at a time, Churchwell said.

An agreement between the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, Bentonville and Rogers shared the cost, said Scott Bennett, director of the Highway Department. The state put an additional $3 million toward the project and the cities contributed $1.5 million each.

The new design is scheduled to be finished in 2018 and bids will be taken on the project then, according to the Highway Department.

It may take longer, but the new road will have better access to businesses.

“We felt like in the big picture it was going to cost us money,” Churchwell said of the initial design.

The cities will assume responsibility for the road once the project is done. The cities will be responsible for road maintenance, including treating slick or snowy roads.

A widening project on the center lane of Walnut Street from Eighth Street to Dixieland Road will be finished before Rogers takes over its stretch of road. Bids on that project won’t be let until 2017 or 2018, Jobe said.

Transferring the road to the city is a good thing because it leaves the city with more flexibility in the future, said Steve Glass, Rogers city planner.

Bennett lauded the partnership between the cities and the state during an appearance in Bentonville on Feb. 19. There will be more projects like that in the future, he said.

Arkansas will get an estimated $250 million in the next five years through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, Bennett said. Most projects are 80 percent federal money and 20 percent state money. Money the state doesn’t use goes back to the federal funds. He warned businessmen Arkansas faces a shortfall in matching federal money of an average of $49.6 million a year.

Gasoline tax revenue is steadily falling because vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient, Bennett said. The tax rate has not been changed since 1999. A half percent sales tax that will expire by 2023 has paid for several projects, but it will expire, Bennett warned.

About 60 percent of the taxes on fuel, license tags and car registrations goes to the Highway Department.

“We don’t get all that,” Bennett said.

The Governor’s Working Group on Highway Funding released a series of recommendations in December. Ideas ranged from increasing taxes 2 cents per gallon per year on gasoline and 5 cents per gallon per year on diesel to shifting money from sales and use tax on vehicles from general revenue to the highway fund. It also suggested a 3/8-percent sales tax to replace the half percent tax when it expires and to ask drivers to report their mileage when they renew their tags and pay a mileage-based fee.

If matching funds are lost it could affect future projects, Bennett said.

Funding, engineering, planning and designing roads take time. The Eighth Street interchange in Bentonville will go out for bid in June, according to the Highway Department. Churchwell said he has been working on the project for 11 years.

Currently 48 of 84 properties needed to connect Eighth Street to Interstate 49 from Moberly Lane have been purchased by the city and the rest are being negotiated, Churchwell said.

The design for the five-lane section of Eighth Street and improvements to Water Tower Road should be done by August and will be bid in 2017, he said.

The city has scheduled 14 months for utility companies to move underground lines, Mayor Bob McCaslin told businessmen Feb. 19.

“That’s a pretty compact window,” McCaslin said.

Wal-Mart headquarters and warehouses are along Eighth Street and the project should significantly reduce congestion on Southeast 14th Street in Bentonville and Hudson Road in Rogers, Churchwell said.

It’s not just the people who live in Bentonville who use the roads, said Dana Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce.

Good roads build commerce, he said. Employees need a way to get to work, residents need a way to get home as the city grows. Cities benefit when sales tax is collected, but shoppers need roads to get to shops.

Roadways and infrastructure take time to build, Davis said.

“That’s why you have to have vision,” Davis said.

The Bentonville population grew about 6 percent last year, Davis said.

Growth is a good problem to have, McCaslin said.

“You know why we have traffic? We have a lot of jobs,” McCaslin said.

Print Headline: Road project hits snag in two cities

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