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story.lead_photo.caption A section of the Bella Vista bypass. - Photo by Flip Putthoff

FAYETTEVILLE -- Christmas came early for the region Thursday in the form of a federal grant to complete the long awaited Bella Vista Bypass.

The $25 million grant is being awarded to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission which will, in turn, give the money to cash-strapped Missouri to build a 4.8-mile section of Interstate 49 from Pineville, Mo., south to the state line. Even though the project is across the line, it's within regional planning's jurisdiction.

The grant application had the support of the Missouri and Arkansas departments of transportation, in addition to regional planning, the Northwest Arkansas Council and a myriad of business interests. The project has been discussed for 25 or 30 years and is considered a priority by Northwest Arkansas and federal transportation officials.

Nelson Peacock, executive director at the Northwest Arkansas Council, said the grant represents at long last the final money needed to finish the highest priority infrastructure project in Northwest Arkansas.

"The importance of the project is reflected in the level of support for the project we received," Peacock said. "Walmart, Tyson Foods, Simmons Foods, and J.B. Hunt together with city leaders and chambers of commerce throughout Arkansas and Missouri contacted Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to express support for the grant application."

Money for the section of I-49 has been a holdup to completing the 278-mile corridor between Fort Smith and Kansas City, Mo.

The grant is coming from a federal Department of Transportation program called Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development Grants, which is allocated for nationally and regionally significant projects.

"It will basically allow about $134.5 million worth of projects to proceed. Otherwise, they'd be indefinitely delayed," said Tim Conklin, with regional planning.

The project in Missouri will enable the Arkansas Department of Transportation to complete its 14.1 miles of the interstate. Arkansas has money set aside for that portion of the 18.9 miles from Bentonville to Pineville.

The $25 million grant leverages $86.6 million from Arkansas voter-approved money along with Missouri Department of Transportation money to complete the project. Missouri has acquired the right of way, done an environmental study and designed the road.

"They had about $23 million in state and federal funds to complete I-49 in Missouri and needed an additional $25 million to bring it up to about $48 million to deliver the project," Conklin said.

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

"Right now, we have all the traffic flowing through the cities of Bella Vista, Pineville and Jane -- nine traffic signals, you're going from freeway speed, 65 to 70 mph into all stop," Conklin said. "I'm very excited to see both states supporting the grant application and agreeing to carry out the project."

Third District Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said, "To go from interstate quality back to local state or county road quality then back to interstate quality creates a real challenge for the discerning traffic so filling in these gaps and bringing to interstate quality locations like this nearly 5-mile stretch has been an extremely important part of this."

Arkansas opened a two-lane section of the bypass in May 2017. Work on the other two lanes is underway but it's early in the process, according to highway officials. The bypass ends northwest of Hiwasse, 2.3 miles shy of the Missouri line.

A new interchange will be built to replace the roundabout at I-49 and U.S. 71 in Bentonville, where the highway heads west. That work is scheduled for 2020 and expected to cost $43.1 million.

"We've got our money set aside so it's going to happen pretty fast whenever everything gets sorted out and they get their money and get on it," said Philip Taldo, member of the Arkansas Highway Commission. "I would think that by the time Missouri gets their's finished, we'll have ours finished."

The gap in the I-49 project 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 didn't until now.

Regional planning applied in September 2017 for a federal grant to help Missouri finish its part of I-49. The request was for $32.4 million from a federal transportation grant program known as Infrastructure for Rebuilding America. They learned in June the region hadn't been selected to receive that money. Planners then applied for the grant announced Thursday.

Taldo said a lot of credit goes to Dick Trammel who spent his entire term on the Arkansas Highway Commission pushing to get the Bella Vista Bypass done.

"Chairman Trammel is the one that championed that deal for the last 10 years with the Highway Department and this is his last year and his last month so I'm excited for him, too," Taldo said.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., this morning to inform him the money had been granted.

In a written statement, Chao said the grants would help "stimulate economic investment, improve quality of life, and create safe, reliable transportation in our communities."

Cotton, among others, had urged the Transportation Department and the White House to support the funding.

"That will be a big boost for jobs and economic growth, not only for Northwest Arkansas but really the whole state and the region because it provides secure, quick and safe transportation between Fort Smith and Kansas City and points further north and south," Cotton said.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, said, "Completion of the critical stretch of the I-49 Arkansas-Missouri Connector is 25 years in the making and I'm thrilled we're one step closer to getting it done."

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said work on the project dates to the Bush administration.

"This has been going on literally for decades and what it does is provide interstate from Alma all the way up to the Canadian border," he said. "The choke point in this whole system has been the Bella Vista area and on into Missouri."

The federal agency also awarded $20 million to extend the Hot Springs East-West Bypass from U.S. 70 east of Hot Springs north to the intersection of Arkansas 5 and Arkansas 7 north of the city in an effort to alleviate traffic congestion in downtown Hot Springs, which is part of the National Park System. The Arkansas Department of Transportation applied for that grant. The state transportation agency is contributing $5 million of its federal money available for the project.

Federal highway grants awarded

NW News on 12/07/2018

Print Headline: $25 million grant will complete Bella Vista bypass

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