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story.lead_photo.caption A map showing the Bella Vista bypass.

SPRINGDALE -- The Northwest Arkansas Planning Commission will apply for a federal grant to help cash-strapped Missouri finish its part of Interstate 49 around Bella Vista.

"It's a long shot, but nothing ventured, nothing gained," said Jeff Hawkins, executive director of regional planning. "It's totally within our planning area, both sides of the line."

The Bella Vista Bypass is now labeled the Missouri/Arkansas Interstate 49 Connector Project to better denote its regional significance, planners said.

Missouri has acquired the right of way, done an environmental study, designed the road and set aside $18.4 million for the project, regional planners were told. But, Missouri is about $32.4 million short.

Arkansas has money set aside for its remaining portion of the highway.

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The $32.4 million will hopefully come from a federal Department of Transportation grant program known as Infrastructure for Rebuilding America. The $1.5 billion in discretionary money is earmarked for projects that involve moving freight. The program looks to leverage local and state money for highways and ports.

The money would be given to Missouri, which would then build the highway.

The federal program is specifically focused on projects in which a local sponsor is significantly invested and is positioned to proceed rapidly to construction, according to a news release.

"It meets the criteria just like it was written for it," Hawkins said.

Planners approved applying for the grant Wednesday afternoon. It has the support of the Missouri and Arkansas departments of transportation.

"I think it's a wonderful project. Scott Bennett and I have discussed it and we support it and I know the commission will support it," Arkansas Highway Commission chairman Dick Trammel said. "What I like about this project is departments came together, municipal units came together -- everybody came together to try to make this possible."

Bennett is the director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

The project has been discussed for 25 or 30 years and is considered to be a priority by federal transportation officials, Trammel said.

"Once you get it started, somebody's gonna finish it," Trammel said. "I predict that orange barrels will go up there pretty soon."

The Northwest Arkansas Council is also behind the project.

"The key is economic development. From an Arkansas perspective, we have an opportunity to stretch our economy more solidly into McDonald County," said Rob Smith. "I've talked to the mayors of Anderson and Pineville, I think they recognize that they want to be more and more tied to us and, frankly, we need them more tied to us."

The project's impact on economic development can't be overstated, said John Bunch, a McDonald County, Mo., commissioner.

"This area is a perfect crossroads for all the traffic that will travel by truck, train or anything else, so it's a safety matter, it's a financial matter and I can see no losers in this, it's all winners," Bunch said.

Money for the missing 18.9-mile section of I-49 has been a major holdup to completing a 265-mile corridor between I-40 and Kansas City, Mo., according to Tim Conklin, with regional planning.

Anderson Mayor John Sellers said he had to negotiate Bella Vista traffic to attend the meeting Wednesday.

"This is definitely a great matter of public safety. When I have to travel from Anderson down to the Bentonville or Rogers area I have to run the gauntlet," Sellers said. "The combination of small traffic and big traffic crammed into a Bella Vista area with numerous stop lights just presents opportunities for disaster."

Missouri officials earlier this year asked the Planning Commission to amend the region's Transportation Improvement Plan, which includes McDonald County, and move the project back until at least 2021. The plan is a list of federally funded transportation projects proposed by various communities, transit providers, the commission and the Arkansas and Missouri transportation departments.

Frank Miller, a planning manager for the Missouri Department of Transportation southwest division, said the department is just trying to maintain the infrastructure it has with the money it has available.

The gap in I-49 has been a contentious issue for years. At one point Missouri had money set aside and Arkansas didn't, so Missouri used the money on other projects. Then, Arkansas voters passed a sales tax in 2012 dedicated to road construction, including I-49 improvements. Now, Arkansas has the money set aside and Missouri doesn't.

Arkansas opened a two-lane section of the bypass in May, but is holding off building the other two lanes until Missouri is ready, according to planners. The bypass ends northwest of Hiwasse, 2.3 miles from the state line.

The other unfinished parts of the project consist of interchange improvements at I-49 and U.S. 71 in Bentonville, where the Bella Vista Bypass heads west. That work is planned for 2020 and expected to cost $43.1 million.

NW News on 09/28/2017

Print Headline: Planners seek federal money to finish Bella Vista Bypass

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