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Christmas really has come early to Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri.

A federal grant awarded last week will ease a 25-year headache for area travelers, relieving congestion and speeding interstate commerce in the two-state region.

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $25 million discretionary grant to complete a 4.8-mile section of Interstate 49 in Missouri.

The short stretch of roadway is the last link in what was known for decades as the Bella Vista bypass, designed to carry I-49 traffic around congestion in the border city on a four-lane highway built to interstate standards.

Area planners have since dubbed the project the I-49 Missouri-Arkansas Connector. Apparently, the name change and the continuing two-state push finally convinced federal authorities to provide this critical funding boost.

The project competed with hundreds of others for the federal BUILD grant. The acronym for the $1.5 billion program stands for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development.

Along with improved safety and better flow of traffic, the bypass project is definitely expected to help attract continued development in the region.

While this project will finish the link between Interstate 40 in Alma and Interstate 70 in Kansas City, I-49 will ultimately connect the Gulf Coast to Canada. It will run down Arkansas' western corridor, in time benefitting more of the state.

That's the long view. The shorter-term expectation is that the severe bottleneck on U.S. 71 in Bella Vista will finally be uncorked.

This relief has been a long time coming.

Arkansas and Missouri highway officials have been piecing stretches of the bypass together as money became available in each state.

When Missouri had money to make improvements on its end, Arkansas didn't. Missouri moved its money to other uses after waiting on Arkansas for years.

Then Arkansas came up with funding for its part, but Missouri couldn't fund the final stretch to the border.

Arkansas pushed, building two of the planned four lanes to move traffic locally, but always planning to upgrade to four when possible.

The grant awarded last week to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission will move the remainder of the project off high center by allowing Missouri to extend the four-lane in that state from Pineville, Mo., to the Arkansas border.

The regional commission has planning jurisdiction in Missouri's neighboring McDonald County as well as in the ever-growing Northwest Arkansas region, which explains why an Arkansas entity could apply for Missouri.

The funding was secured with strong support from both the Arkansas and Missouri congressional delegations as well as from business and community leaders in both states.

Missouri has already acquired the right of way, done an environmental study and designed its 4.8-mile portion of the project. That state also has about $23 million on hand but needed the $25 million in grant funds to finish the work.

Meanwhile, Arkansas highway officials will schedule the last of the projects to finish the 14.1 miles of the connector in this state to interstate standards. Funding for this work is already committed from a statewide sales tax approved by voters in 2012.

Completion of the project won't happen for a while yet. Planners are looking toward early 2022 at best to finish the job.

It can't happen soon enough.

Commentary on 12/12/2018

Print Headline: The missing link

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