BY MELANIE BUCK –
Mena/Polk County Rotary Club hosted Arkansas State Highway Commission Chairman Dick Trammel at their most recent meeting, to hear the latest discussions of Interstate 49. Currently, I-49 is a little more than 80% complete but Arkansas has three major unfinished projects, the I-49 bridge over the Arkansas River, the Bella Vista bypass and the “missing link” between Texarkana and Fort Smith.
Several business owners and citizens were in attendance along with the Rotary to hear the latest details Trammel could give. Although there hasn’t been many steps taken, there has been a detailed budget laid out by Governor Asa Hutchinson that Trammel explained extensively.
The FAST Act, Fixing America’s Surface and Transportation Act, provides five years of funding for highway projects in Arkansas through fiscal years 2016-2020 and would invest $225.2 billion dollars into those projects. The state’s 20% of the funding is set to come from a surplus, by way of motor fuel and registration fees, diesel tax, and natural gas severance tax.
There has been no confirmation on whether part of that funding will go towards the missing links on I-49 in Arkansas, but the I-49 International Coalition is working hard to make it happen. Local member, Gar Eisele was in attendance at the meeting and thanked Trammel for his support of the project as well. The Coalition was originally organized in December 2002, with representation from Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri, to work collectively to promote the completion of the North-South corridor.
I-49 is designated by the U.S. Congress as the #1 High Priority Corridor that will connect Kansas City and New Orleans; connecting in Kansas City with I-29 North, it will create a 1700 – mile uninterrupted interstate highway from Winnipeg, Canada, through the heart of America to New Orleans and through the port system of Louisiana, to Central and South America where trade and traffic are expected to triple in the next decade with expansion of the Panama Canal.
From Winnipeg, going South, this Interstate trade route intersects existing East – West Interstates I-94 (Fargo), I-90 (Sioux Falls), I-80 (Omaha), I-70 (Kansas City), I-44 (Joplin), I-40 (Fort Smith), I-30 (Texarkana), I-20 (Shreveport), and I-10 (Lafayette) on the way to New Orleans and other ports on the Gulf Coast. The result is a comprehensive transportation grid to enhance the movement of food, goods, energy and people to and from anywhere in Mid – America and the rest of the world.
Trammel also discussed the idea of the proposed funding not going through. “Depending on the healthcare issue, how that may change, it could change everything,” said Trammel. He explained that if healthcare was left up to the states to solely support, it could take all funding away from the budget and then it would be back to square one on trying to find available money.
Chad Adams, Arkansas Highway Department District Engineer said the cost of the 160-mile section between Fort Smith and Texarkana is a $3 billion project. “It’s going to be very difficult to raise the funding for the project,” said Adams. He also discussed the completion of a bridge near Fort Chaffee that will cost $350 million to finish. I-49 Coalition member, Gar Eisele said, “If we can get the bridge built, we can get our portion finished.” “Everything depends on the funding,” said Adams.
He also discussed other upcoming projects in Mena.
The North Morgan Street project, that will run from Holly Harshman Elementary to Highway 71, next to Sun Country Inn, is expected to begin by June 2016. The Highway Department is funding 80% of the project, while the city of Mena is funding the remaining 20%. The state will oversee the designs and construction process of the project.
Highway 88 East also has an upcoming resurfacing project. Beginning at the ‘Y’ on the north edge of the city limits, and running for five miles, will receive a new surface. That project is expected to begin sometime this summer.
“We’re in the midst of a downtown revitilization here and I want to thank you for working with us so well so that we could get the project done,” said Adams in relation to the final phase of the streetscape sidewalk project that is currently on-going on Mena Street.