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story.lead_photo.caption Proposed changes for interchange

FAYETTEVILLE — Drivers trying to turn north onto Interstate 49 from eastbound Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard are going to get some much-needed relief in a few years, but highway officials aren’t sure which option they’ll use to keep traffic moving.

ArDOT wants to hear from you

The public can still comment on the two Interstate 49/Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard plans until midnight Wednesday. The diagrams that were displayed at a recent public-input session as well as the comment form are available at here.

Source: Staff report

“What we have are two options. One is a flyover where the eastbound MLK traffic desiring to go north on I-49 would be taken up and over the interchange and put on the northbound lanes of I-49,” said Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Transportation. “The other option is a loop ramp. This would allow you to stay right and exit around a ramp that goes underneath the interstate and takes the traffic northbound.”

Both options have advantages and disadvantages, Straessle said.

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The problem with building a bridge over the interchange is the ramp leading to it would have very large walls that would cut off a driver’s visibility, Straessle said. The advantage is it could be built almost entirely within the existing highway right-of-way.

“The problem with the loop ramp is the diameter is quite large and it is encroaching into some existing businesses,” Straessle said.

A gas station and a motel are in the way on the southeast corner of the interchange. Also, the loop ramp would require a new on-ramp for westbound MLK traffic heading north on I-49 that would remove the Bank of America building, a body shop and the Walmart optical building on the northeast corner. That property would have to be purchased and the businesses helped to move.

“So, you have one design that has minimal impact, and you have another design that has significant impact,” Straessle said. “You could be looking at in excess of $10 million difference between the two. That does not include utility relocation, so that’s a very high number.”

If both options provide the same level of service and solve the problem, the cheaper one typically wins unless there are technical or design reasons to go with the more expensive option, Straessle said.

“We definitely want to achieve our goal but do it in the most cost-effective manner,” Straessle said.

David Smith, a longtime Prairie Grove resident, had to deal with the morning and evening congestion at the interchange for years when he worked in Springdale and Fayetteville. Now retired, Smith still travels through the interchange when he comes to town for any reason.

“That was a real issue going to work, and it still is, so if we could get the traffic going better, that’d be great,” Smith said at a recent public hearing. “There’s a lot of good possibilities. I really like the flyover.”

Kal Gandhi and Bob Patel own property west of the interchange.

“If we go with plan B, which is the loop, it will be a future-ready plan. That’s the good thing about it; they’re looking about 15 to 20 years from today,” Gandhi said. “If you’re talking about the flyover plan, I’m into that because it’s more cost-effective and could sustain today’s traffic.”

Traffic studies done in 2012 found I-49 at the interchange carried 54,700 cars a day and MLK carried 38,000. By 2040, I-49 is projected to have some 84,000 cars a day and MLK 62,000.

Nan Lawler and Richard Covey said they walk trails in the area and would like to be able to safely negotiate the interchange.

“There are trails over here and trails over there, and it’d be nice to have a connection either over or under the freeway rather than sending bicycles and pedestrians through it,” Lawler pointed out while looking at plans. “You kind of take your life in your hands.”

Regardless, Smith and other drivers will have to wait a while for a solution to the bottleneck.

The planning process is about 30 percent complete, and highway officials will take public input into account, go back to the drawing board and decide which proposal to bring forward, Straessle said. Another public input session will be scheduled when the planning is about 60 percent complete.

“I’d say in the next two years you could see this (planning) come to fruition,” Straessle said. “If we go with the flyover option, it takes about two years to build a bridge. It’s a double-lane bridge, plus it’s over live traffic, so you could see construction being about two years or so.”

Razorback home games also present a challenge during construction because MLK is a major gateway to campus, Straessle said.

“So, when that gets under construction, hopefully there’s some other ways to get to the stadium or maybe they want to play all those games in Little Rock after all,” Straessle joked. “Football aside, I think there will be some challenges; all lanes will be open, but there’ll be construction out there, and that slows everything down.”

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

Print Headline: MLK bottleneck solutions floated

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