BY JIM PINSON & LEANN DILBECK –
Several local leaders attended a meeting of the I-49 Coalition held last week in DeQueen. The meeting, hosted on the campus of UA Cossatot, included regional elected officials, chamber of commerce representatives, business leaders, and concerned citizens.
The meeting was led by Texarkana Chamber of Commerce President Michael Malone and Coalition Executive Director Gard Wayt. Curtis Green, the President of the I-49 International Coalition shared information about the project.
Wayt reported the I-49 project is an international project that will connect New Orleans, Louisiana with Winnipeg, Canada when it is completed. He said the project is about 80% finished with another 5% under construction. He said that leaves 15% that has yet to be started, with the biggest obstacle being funding. Wayt said the majority of that 15% is in Arkansas between Fort Smith and Texarkana.
Currently, in northwest Arkansas, a 14 mile, two-lane portion of the Bella Vista bypass is being built, partially funded from the ten-year ½ cent sales tax for highways approved by Arkansas voters in 2012. When an additional $50M is obtained, the Bypass will ultimately be 4-lane and will be renamed I-49. The new sales tax is also helping to expand Hwy 540 to six lanes between Fayetteville and Bentonville, and Hwy 540 has been renamed I-49.
In west Arkansas in the River Valley region, six miles of I-49 at Chaffee Crossing opened in July 2015. Population growth in Greenwood, Ark. is projected to increase 153% by the year 2040. Cities like Greenwood and Alma are looking at I-49 connections as significant contributing factors to their projected growth.
Further south, there remains 180 miles from Fort Smith to Texarkana, that still needs $2.5 billion in funding. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who has been very vocal of his support of the completion of I-49 because of the economic impact that Arkansas stands to gain from the project has commissioned a study to evaluate the possibility of toll roads in the state.
Southwest Arkansas has seen progress with the I-49 project with the Hwy 549 Eastern Loop around Texarkana being opened in 2013. The 4.4 miles extending Hwy 549 from Doddridge to the Louisiana border opened in a joint ceremony at the Arkansas/Louisiana border on November 10, 2014. Hwy 549 has now been renamed I-49.
Malone encouraged area residents, chambers of commerce, and municipalities to push for the completion of the I-49 project in Arkansas by contacting their respective senators and representatives.
Green said the project started in 1986 and affects 12 states. He said when finished I-49 will cross nine interstates and cited the importance of the project because of the expansion of the Panama Canal. AR Good Roads Commissioner Craig Douglass has publicly commented on how the Panama Canal opening could impact Arkansas highways and create a greater demand for the I-49 completion.
Several leaders were present from Polk County including Mena Mayor George McKee, Cove Mayor Joan Headley, Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison, ARCO Co-Chair John Vacca, Mena/Polk County Chamber of Commerce Director Paula Bailey and I-49 Coalition member & ACRO founder Gar Eisele.
For more information, visit the website www.Interstate49.org.