ARDOT announces I-49 extension to move into next phase of development

Abbi Ross
Fort Smith Times Record
The Arkansas Department of Transportation is working on the next phase of the Interstate-49 extension in the Fort Smith area. Work includes agency approvals for the re-evaluation of the 1997 Final Environment Impact Statement, agency construction permits, and final design and construction plans for a non-tolled facility from Highway 22 to I-40.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation is moving on to the next phase of project development for the construction of Interstate 49 from Highway 22 in Sebastian County to Interstate 40 in Crawford County.

The work to be done is about 13.6 miles long with an estimated price tag of $787 million, including a new bridge over the Arkansas River that may cost between $300 million and $400 million, according to Arkansas Department of Transportation District 4 Engineer Chad Adams.

Work during the next phase of the I-49 extension includes getting agency approvals for the re-evaluation of the 1997 Final Environment Impact Statement, preparing required agency construction permits, and developing final design and construction plans for a non-tolled facility from Highway 22 to I-40.

When completed, I-49 will connect Kansas City, Missouri, to southern Louisiana, passing through the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan area, Fort Smith, and Texarkana. The possibility of tolling the four-lane I-49 extension from Alma to Fort Smith was deemed “not viable” in April 2019. It was concluded that the gross revenue from the toll would be about $243 million over 40 years, which would not cover the cost of construction.

The 2020 approval by Arkansans of Issue 1 to provide more road funding will help pay for the I-49 extension. 

“Issue 1 will create $270 million to go to that project,” said Keith Gibson, member of the Arkansas State Highway Commission. “That $270 million right now is designated to build two lanes of the interstate from Alma to Highway 22 and two lanes of the bridge that will go over the river.”

Whether construction costs will be higher or lower than the $270 million is unknown until some engineering is done and final numbers are shared, Gibson said. 

Issue 1 was passed into law with 55% of the Arkansas vote in November and indefinitely continues the 0.5% sales and use tax for state roadways once the current statewide tax sunsets on June 30, 2023. The tax currently generates an estimated $293.7 million.

The section was originally part of a larger corridor environmental study known as the “U.S. 71 Relocation.” The study extended from Highway 70 in DeQueen to I-40 near Alma, encompassing about 125 miles.

Construction may be done in phases due to funding constraints. A phased construction approach may be used where two of the ultimate four lanes may be constructed in the first phase. The final determination of this phased construction approach will be determined during this next phase of project development. 

The project has been in the works for a long time, but there is not a set date for the start of construction yet, said Gard Wayt, executive director for the I-49 Coalition.

"It's been under consideration and in the semi-planning stage," Wayt said. "Now it's actually ready for the official planning part of it, so it's high on the list right now."

Wayt's estimate is that construction will start in the next year and that the project will take a couple of years to complete, he said.

Finishing the stretch of I-49 in the Fort Smith area has been a high priority for the I-49 Coalition, and business leaders in the area. The connection has been called "the missing link." Wayt has pointed out how the connection will allow a more seamless flow of goods from all over the world all the way through the middle of the United States.

The connection "creates a transportation grid for moving goods and people and food and energy to and from anywhere from mid-America to anywhere in the world," Gayt added.