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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF @NWABENGOFF Traffic flows Dec. 20 on Bella Vista Way/U.S. 71 in Bella Vista. A new study says intersection improvements, added lanes and access controls such as traffic signals are needed to relieve rush-hour traffic.

The Bella Vista Bypass alone won’t relieve rush hour traffic congestion in the city, according to a new study by the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

The study says intersection improvements, added lanes and access controls such as traffic signals are needed on the section of U.S. 71 between the bypass and the Missouri state line. U.S. 71 is Bella Vista Way in the city.

The study doesn’t address how to pay for the needed changes, which could top $34 million.

It explores four alternatives, which range from doing nothing to building a road around the east side of Bella Vista. The bypass under construction skirts the city to the west.

Camille Hector returned to Arkansas from St. Louis and settled in Bella Vista a couple of years ago. She works in Rogers. Hector said her commute can take about as long as her old, big city one, depending on traffic.

“Usually, I judge how bad it’s congested by is it one light or two lights or three lights,” she said. “It can take 10 or 15 minutes to get through that short stretch of Bella Vista Way from Dairy Queen to Lowe’s, depending on how many lights the traffic is backed up,” she said. “I’ll check Google maps sometimes to see how bad it is.”

Hector said her husband picks up their children in the afternoon and often takes the half-hour, alternate route from Rogers to Pea Ridge and through the north side of Bella Vista to get home to avoid the traffic on U.S. 71.

Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie said city officials have been upgrading traffic signals in the city so the signals can communicate and coordinate.

“Rush hour is moving. Before, it was go and stop and go. Now it’s rolling,” Christie said. “Where we get in trouble is there’s so much traffic, and it’s so fragile, that all we need is one fender-bender — not even a bad accident — and the whole thing will back up.”

Steve Lawrence, District 9 engineer for the Transportation Department, said the study looked at the worst area for traffic along U.S. 71 in Bella Vista and offers a mix of short-term and long-term suggestions to help.

“I think it’s got some good ideas, of course everything always comes to money,” Lawrence said. “The option as far as improving County Road 40 out to the east, I think that would be good, but I think it’s going to take some cooperation between the county and the state and the city in order for something like that to actually happen.”

Lawrence said the study went further than planned.

“My understanding is that on the front end they were just going to look at low-cost alternatives,” he said. “I think what they found is there aren’t any low-cost alternatives that are going to fix the problem.”

Lawrence said finding the money for the proposed improvements may be a challenge because the work isn’t included in the state’s current road program. He said the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission may have the money and authority, but work on Bella Vista Way isn’t currently part of the longterm road plan.

Tim Conklin, with Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning, said the Bella Vista study has good ideas, but they can’t be implemented overnight. The work would have to be included in regional and statewide transportation improvement plans before it became eligible for funding.

More than 80 percent of workers in Bella Vista commute to Bentonville, Rogers and other cities in Northwest Arkansas, the study notes. And most of Bella Vista is within the Bentonville School District. U.S. 71 is the only direct route between Bella Vista and those employment centers.

“These factors result in commuting patterns that are highly directional,” meaning traffic mostly flows one direction in the mornings and reverses in the evenings. The highway also carries traffic going to or coming from Missouri, including numerous trucks, according to the study.

The Bella Vista Bypass is designed to route traffic around the western edge of the city from near Interstate 49’s exit 93, rejoining I-49 near Pineville, Mo. Work continues on the 14-mile bypass even though Missouri highway officials say they don’t have the money to link up with the new road at the state line. The bypass will eventually be part of I-49.

Traffic volumes range from 20,000 cars a day near the state line to 39,000 cars a day further south at Benton County 40. A traffic count in August found about 6,300 cars a day are using the recently opened two-lane portion of the bypass, which provides residents in the western part of town access to I-49 in Bentonville.

Existing and forecast traffic was analyzed on U.S. 71 both with and without the partial bypass and with the full bypass for 2040.

Completion of the bypass will relieve much of the congestion along the U.S. 71B corridor, according to the study. However, U.S. 71 will remain the most direct route between Bella Vista and cities to the south, the study says.

Congestion will continue to be a problem between Mercy Way and Interstate 49 and the Benton County 40 intersection will continue to operate above capacity, it says.

The study also looked at crash rates and the types of crashes that occurred along the section of U.S. 71 through Bella Vista. It found the average crash rate was below the state’s, but crashes resulting in fatalities or serious injury were higher than average south of Riordan Road.

“Crashes occurred more frequently at Mercy Way and County Road 40, which are the most congested intersections on the corridor with frequent stop-and-go conditions,” the study said. “When considering fatal and serious injury crashes, the highest concentration is located between Oldham Drive and Mercy Way.”

A lot of those crashes happened when a northbound vehicle trying to turn left at Mercy Way in the inside, through lane was rear-ended by another vehicle, according to the study. The city recently built a left-turn lane at the intersection that should help the situation, according to the study.

Environmental considerations that could limit road improvements include a stream that runs along the highway, an historic bridge, cabins that are on the National Historic Register, gas stations, Razorback Greenway crossings and up to six endangered species, according to the study.

Connecting Arkansas

The $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas is one of the largest road construction programs the Arkansas Department of Transportation has undertaken. Its 35 projects are expected to widen and upgrade 200 miles of major highways and interstates. It’s paid for primarily by a temporary half-cent increase in the statewide sales tax voters approved in 2012. The tax expires in 2023.

Source: Staff report

Ron Wood can be reached by email at rwood@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWARDW.

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Highway 71 Corridor Improvement Study

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Photo by Chris Swindle
Proposed traffic improvement for U.S. 71/Bella Vista Way.

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