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Is College Avenue through Fayetteville a vital part of a regional highway connecting all of Northwest Arkansas?

Certainly it was once upon a time, and given the number of vehicles on it today, it's a route that still carries a heavy load of the region's auto traffic.

Or should it be treated like a city street?

Before "the bypass" -- that is, the highway loop to Fayetteville's west that eventually, after the late 1990s, was part of Interstate 49 -- the road known by its federal designation of U.S. 71B was the primary north-south route for traveling in the region. Most of it remains a federal highway maintained by Arkansas Department of Transportation.

Within Fayetteville's city limits, it's called College Avenue, Archibald Yell Boulevard and South School Street. For simplicity, I'll just keep referring to it as College Avenue.

A question looming for years in Fayetteville has been whether College Avenue, as an important street within the city, can function differently than it does today. Can it function more like a city street, perhaps even the city's "Main Street?"

To that end, City Council members will discuss on Tuesday and potentially vote Sept. 17 on a proposal in which city government will take ownership of the 6.5 miles of College Avenue between Fulbright Expressway on the south (just north of the Fayetteville Executive Airport) and Fulbright Expressway to the north (near the Northwest Arkansas Mall and the commercial area sometimes promoted as "Uptown.").

For years, the Arkansas Department of Transportation has reminded Arkansans -- usually during campaigns for tax increases -- that the state has the 12th largest highway system among the 50 states. That's pretty significant for one of the country's smaller and poorer states. The Department of Transportation quite plainly says it can't afford all that mileage. When opportunities come along for the state agency to sensibly cast off some portions of the state highway system, it's leaders are quite eager to do it.

It's found a willing partner in the city of Fayetteville.

Why? Because city leaders envision College Avenue as something much "more livable," according to city documents. But state control, city staffers say, is a barrier. Every change the city wants has to get state approval.

"These rules and regulations have limited the city's ability to such things as add sidewalks, increase the number of crossing locations for pedestrians by adding traffic signals or other crossing enhancements, install medians and street trees, reduce lane widths, reduce the number of lanes, reduce speed limits, etc.," City Engineer Chris Brown wrote to the City Council.

That gives you an idea of what a future College Avenue might look and function like. Part of the goal, according to Brown, is to spur redevelopment through "structural changes to the street."

It'll be quite the change, no doubt accomplished over many years. But the city has spent time and money since 2018 building a draft called "Rethinking 71B." Still in draft form, it represents ideas coming from public workshops and other feedback. Originally, its adoption was slated for July, but it's behind schedule and the City Council will apparently be asked to embrace taking over control of College Avenue before the draft document for its future appearance and functionality will be ready.

The draft is available on the city's website. For simplicity, I've shortened the link to

A lot of projects get labeled as "transformational" by advocates. That word got thrown around a lot about the cultural arts corridor voters approved downtown. But the future of College Avenue tied up in this shift in ownership promises to be one of the most significant changes in the history of Fayetteville.

The final draft of that 71B plan will determine whether the future College Avenue works out like back-in parking on Block Street or the bike lanes pilot project on Rolling Hills Drive, or as successfully as the city's trails, Kessler Mountain Regional Park, public library and redevelopment of Dickson Street.

Commentary on 09/08/2019

Print Headline: Will 71B become Main St.?

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