State highway officials agreed last week to stall the completion of a bypass around Monticello and use the more than $75 million available for the project to build a new 17-mile road from just east of the city to U.S. 65 in Desha County.
The segment of highway is designated as a future stretch of Interstate 69.
While it will take years to complete the state's $3.6 billion portion of I-69, the new two-lane route will allow freight in southeast Arkansas to move more efficiently and safely, as well as provide I-69 a larger footprint than a bypass and therefore position the route to attract more federal funding to complete it, the region's boosters said.
"In my experience here for seven years in recruiting industry and dealing with our existing industries, it just makes more sense for freight transportation and our ability to show improved logistics to connect our two U.S. highways that bisect Drew County with U.S 65," said Nita McDaniel, executive director of the Monticello Economic Development Commission.
The eastern section of the bypass already is under construction, part of a $16.1 million contract awarded last year to complete the base and surface. It is expected to be completed this summer. That section of the bypass goes from U.S. 278 on the east side of Monticello to U.S. 425 on the south side of the Drew County seat. Once completed, the plan was to award contracts to complete the western half.
Under the plan, about $12 million would have also been available for the Arkansas Department of Transportation to acquire the right of way for a four-lane segment from the bypass east to U.S. 65 near McGehee. Money also was available to design the segment.
The money available is a bundle of congressionally designated earmarks, some of which require the state to match it with some of its own money, for development of the corridor in Arkansas. The Arkansas segment is part of a 2,680-mile I-69 trade corridor that when completed will extend from Mexico to Canada.
State highway planners looked at the route and initially concluded that the "cost fit with the money available," said Scott Bennett, the director of the state Transportation Department.
PROBLEMS WITH BYPASS
McDaniel and others saw problems with completing the bypass.
The bypass is designed to steer traffic away from the city, which is a another way to move traffic safely and efficiently. But reduced traffic in the business district can lead to reduced economic activity. Area leaders wouldn't mind an economic hit if the bypass would improve transportation infrastructure in other ways, such as making it easier for products to get to market. But the bypass would only work when the rest of I-69 is built, they say.
"Logistics has been a toe stump for southeast Arkansas for quite a while," McDaniel said.
Further, the western bypass crosses six county roads with no allowances for them to cross the bypass, which would be a controlled-access facility as part of future I-69. School buses and other vehicles would have to find other, less convenient routes.
And U.S. 278 already is a well-developed corridor on the west side of Monticello, boasting four and five lanes. Meanwhile, U.S. 278 east of the city is a winding two-lane route. In addition to truck traffic, students attending area schools, such as the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas at Monticello College of Technology in McGehee regularly travel the stretch.
"It's a 1900s-style road," said Desha County Judge Jack May. "Real good people have died on that road."
McDaniel helped develop the alternative to completing the bypass: Buy the right of way for the western section of the bypass to preserve it -- about $9 million -- but direct the money that would be used to build it -- about $52 million -- toward building the two-lane section of I-69 from the section of the bypass under construction to U.S. 65, which is a major north-south corridor.
That scenario would cost an additional $5 million, but state highway officials said it made sense.
"This change is the best possible way to help our industries," McDaniel told the commission. "You are effectively creating a corridor to connect three U.S. highways. It's about freight. It's about economic development."
HELP TO INDUSTRIES
The new highway will help industries in a wide swath of southeast Arkansas, she and other leaders in the region say. They include the Interfor sawmill at Monticello, which announced in November it was making a $46 million investment to modernize the facility.
Interfor, which is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and acquired the mill in 2015, now employs 120 people at the facility, up from 90 a year ago, according to Tim Lowrimore, a company spokesman.
Once the modernization is complete, annual lumber production is expected to double. And so will truck traffic entering and exiting the mill, Lowrimore said.
"Trucks are using pretty tight roads to get to our mill," he said. "We think this will relieve some of the safety concerns. That's going to be a positive for our business out there."
McDaniel ticked off a list of other companies that will benefit from the new section.
In Drew County, they also include a Maxwell Hardware Flooring plant, Drew Foam Co., Hood Packaging Corp. and two boat manufacturers, SeaArk Boats and War Eagle Boats.
Other industry in the region also will benefit.
J. Michael Smith, executive director of the Crossett Economic Development Foundation, said the new segment would help Georgia-Pacific, which has a mill and chemical plants in Crossett that are major employers in Ashley County, which is south of Monticello.
He also represents the Southeast Arkansas Cornerstone Coalition, which promotes economic development in the region.
The new segment "will increase efficiency," or make it easier for trucks to travel to markets," Smith said. "They travel a great deal to Memphis."
NOT ENHANCING TRAVEL
On the other hand, Smith said, he doesn't see construction of the bypass enhancing travel in the region.
Desha County industries that stand to benefit, according to May, include Diamond Pet Foods; SAF Holland, which makes axles for big trucks; Akin Industries, a manufacturer of hospitality and health-care furnishings; and Central Wire, which manufactures fine, strand and rope wire as well as specialized wire for medical applications.
May also cited Clearwater Paper, which is on the Mississippi River just north of Arkansas City.
He and others say it will not only help travel in the region now but also have a bigger impact on future spending on I-69 than the bypass would.
"I think this makes the most sense," said Dan Flowers, Bennett's predecessor at the department who now is helping lead the eight-state Interstate 69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition. "It really makes a statement in providing a big footprint for future opportunities for funding."
The I-69 corridor includes the Great River Bridge over the Mississippi River. The latest estimated cost for the bridge is $1.6 billion, of which Arkansas' share is $1.2 billion.
"This shows our commitment on doing something for the bridge," Flowers said.
SundayMonday Business on 02/11/2018
Print Headline: Bypass for Monticello takes back seat to I-69