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FAYETTEVILLE — Drivers in a few years are expected to get some relief from a major traffic bottleneck in Northwest Arkansas, but highway officials aren’t sure which option they’ll use to keep cars moving.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation is looking at two options to relieve congestion for people trying to turn north onto Interstate 49 from eastbound Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Fayetteville.

“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,” department spokesman Danny Straessle said. “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.

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

In the other option, “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 would be in the way of a loop ramp at the southeast corner of the interchange. Also, the loop ramp would require a new on-ramp for westbound Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard traffic to turn north on I-49. That project would remove a Bank of America building, a body shop and a Wal-Mart optical building on the northeast corner.

The property would have to be purchased and the businesses would have to receive help to relocate.

“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.

“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, who is now retired, said at a recent public hearing. “There’s a lot of good possibilities. I really like the flyover.”

Kal Gandhi owns 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 in 2012 found that I-49 at the interchange carried 54,700 vehicles a day, and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard carried 38,000. By 2040, I-49 is projected to have carry about 84,000 cars a day and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard 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.”

But Lawler and area drivers will have to wait a while for a solution to the current problems at the interchange.

The planning process is about 30 percent complete. Highway officials will take public input into account and then decide which proposal to put forward, Straessle said.

Another public input session will be scheduled later, 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.”

Arkansas Razorback football games at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville also could present a challenge during construction because Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard 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.”

Print Headline: Plans floated to ease traffic in Fayetteville

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