SILOAM SPRINGS -- Arkansas Department of Transportation officials are gathering ideas for converting U.S. 412 into an interstate highway, and they'll spend the winter screening them before coming back in the spring with some preliminary recommendations and proposed scenarios.
"To gather all these ideas in one big pot, if you will, and then figure out this is what we're going to do or these are the two or three options we're going to offer up in that spring meeting, it's a big moment," said Dave Parker, Department of Transportation spokesman. "The spring meeting is going to be the big one where we actually see some plans and designs, all the possibilities. That's where it's gonna get real interesting."
Parker said it's still early in the process.
"Anything like this is going to take years and years and years to accomplish, but you gotta start somewhere," Parker said. "The fact that it's designated as a corridor of priority means it's going to happen. It's just going to take a while."
Parker said the department still wants input from the public and stakeholders.
"Our universe of alternatives is what we're gathering now, and it could come from a group, a citizen, an elected official. Anyone really," Parker said. "It may be a combination of ideas that we look at."
The department, in addition to building the highway, will also look at things like congestion management, intelligent transportation systems, freight and multimodal alternatives.
Tim Conklin, executive director at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said the planning process being used is relatively new.
"That's exciting to see, how this impacts both states, the communities in both states, and the decisions and considerations that must be made to plan something like this," Conklin said. "This is at the very early planning stage, and all the options are open. That future interstate designation requires this level of work to see what it would take to make that happen."
Studies done in the early 2000s about how to move traffic through and around Siloam Springs should come in handy, he said.
The elephant in the room is how to pay for the project. There are currently no funds tied to the project.
Highway Commissioner Philip Taldo said he understands the benefits of making U.S. 412 an interstate highway but there are a lot of projects the state needs to do, including $10 billion to $15 billion worth of interstate projects like finishing I-49 to from Alma to Texarkana, building the proposed Interstate 69 across the southern part of the state and Interstate 57 in northeast Arkansas.
"As time goes on maybe it will gain some financial help. That's what it really gets down to," Taldo said. "So, I think it's good to have this planning session, and what we'll do, I'm sure, is we'll put it on the shelf, and if the Arkansas congressional delegation and Oklahoma's delegation get together in Washington and earmark a billion dollars for it, we'll be out here tomorrow turning dirt."
The U.S. 412 study area covers about 190 miles from Interstate 35 in Oklahoma to Interstate 49 in Arkansas.
Connecting Northwest Arkansas and north-central Oklahoma with an interstate highway would encourage economic development along the corridor and expand opportunities for employment in the region, according to officials in both states.
The current study is focused on complying with legislation passed by Congress to convert U.S. 412 to an interstate highway, addressing safety, improving mobility, and enhancing system linkage by connecting rural and urban communities, national airports and inland ports and freight supply chains.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the Arkansas Department of Transportation are studying the project in coordination with the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and Federal Highway Administration.
Most of the 170 miles of the highway in Oklahoma are already built to interstate standards, with four-lane divided highway and controlled access. Of the 20 miles in Arkansas, the only portion built to interstate standards is the completed section of the U.S. 412 Springdale Northern Bypass -- designated Arkansas 612 -- between I-49 and Arkansas 112. Work on the segment between Arkansas 112 and U.S. 412 in Tontitown is expected to begin soon.
The idea of making the route part of the interstate system surfaced in 2021 when the Indian Nations Council of Governments in Tulsa passed a resolution seeking support for the change from Oklahoma and Arkansas transportation and elected officials.
Congress in November 2021 included the high-priority, future interstate designation in its infrastructure bill.
U.S. 412 intersects with I-35 about 80 miles west of Tulsa. I-35 runs from Laredo, Texas, north through San Antonio, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kan., to Interstate 70 in Salina, Kan. It continues north to Duluth, Minn.
An interstate highway would help major retail and industrial employers in the region, including Walmart in Northwest Arkansas and numerous energy and aerospace companies in northeast Oklahoma, according to Indian Nations Council officials.
U.S. 412 also directly serves the major inland ports of the Tulsa Port of Catoosa and Oakley's Port 33 on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System and provides, or will provide, access to Tulsa International and Northwest Arkansas National airports.
In case you missed it
A self-guided virtual presentation and comment forms will also be posted on both Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Arkansas Department of Transportation project study webpages. Those that cannot attend a meeting in-person may view the virtual meeting materials and submit comments. The virtual meeting materials and survey will be active through Oct. 31.
The Arkansas Department of Transportation websites events feed can be found at https://www.ardot.gov/events-feed/?_sft_category=public-meetings
Source: Arkansas Department of Transportation