Lane shifts set with I-540 construction, project still on track

story by Ryan Saylor

Commuters using Interstate 540 in Fort Smith and Van Buren should prepare for lane shifts starting Wednesday (March 12), a sign that the more than $78 million rehabilitation project is inching closer to completion later this summer.

According to District 4 Engineer Chad Adams of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, project construction manager Kiewit Corporation will begin the process of moving northbound traffic to the outside, northbound lane of the interstate between Rogers Avenue and the I-40/I-540 interchange on that day. But just because northbound traffic is moving back to the northbound lanes does not mean the project is done, he said.

"I would say it is still on schedule," he said. "That is a statement I really want to get out there. Switching traffic doesn't mean ... we're not a week or two from opening the (remaining closed traffic) lanes. But we're getting closer."

He equated the transition to home construction.

"It's like when you see a house being built and you see walls go up and the roof go up. You (still) have a couple more months of inside work. So yeah, there's progress, but there's still stuff that has to be done before we can open it up to two lanes both directions. But there is good news. It's a positive thing."

Adams said the work that still needs to be completed will require more work in the median, thus the requirement that traffic patterns adjust. The work includes installing cable barriers in the median to prevent crossover accidents, as well as installing guard rails and adding an additional layer of asphalt to the southbound lanes.

With the movement of traffic and the transition of workers to the median, drivers will notice construction workers more often than before, Adams said.

"Right now, people have been separated from the workers," he said. "Now (the workers) are going to be in the middle. Traffic's going to be on the outside lanes of both directions. Contractors will be somewhat more exposed to the traffic. So we ask people to be aware and on the lookout for those things. Workers will be in a different place then they are used to seeing them. (Drivers should) consider that they are coming from different places, too. You're always used to them coming from the right side, where now they'll be coming from the middle."

The risk to workers and drivers could increase due to the lack of concrete barriers separating the two, though he said drivers should actually find the lanes roomier than before, allowing them to have a shoulder to use should an accident occur or a car break down, an option that has not been available since construction started in late January 2013.

Having the wider lanes, Adams said travel times should be reduced between the region's two largest cities.

"(Instead of a concrete barrier), the drums are set up to block the other lane. Now there is a way to get vehicles around or out of the way. It will feel wider. People will feel like they have more room. They'll move more quickly. With that barrier wall, people pucker up and slow down. People will now drive closer to the speed limit."

The original completion of Summer 2014 still appears to be on track, Adams said, even in spite of winter weather.

While weather has not slowed the project, other unforeseen obstacles have slowed the project slightly.

"It's just things that you encounter when you get into the construction. There was a column that was, I believe, on the bridge for Highway 64 (in Van Buren). One of the columns, there was a bald area where concrete popped out. We had to repair that," he said, adding that other bridge decks had to be repaired at the I-40/I-540 interchange.

"The bridge is taking more traffic than it's used to. And sort of weak areas are exposed quickly then. So we've made arrangements to get those repaired while the bridges are closed to traffic. It's just somewhat routine things that you expect to happen when you go through a project."


Adams said the project, which officially kicked off Jan. 28 of last year, may be a nuisance to many commuters, but he said the project is being completed in double the time most other projects of comparable size would be due to a special bidding process, emphasizing project completion by mid-Summer 2014.

"The project had what we called A+C Bidding. It's basically a method for us to consider time and the cost — road user costs — that are in the way when we are doing construction. We let the contractor tell us how fast they think they can do it. It's considered in the contract. Kiewit bid 153 working days. I don't remember how many other bidders there were, but every other bidder bid 300 working days. So you're talking about half the time (compared to what) the other contractors will do."

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Shoulda, woulda, coulda

Ah, the good old 'cable barriers'. The new trend in cheap eyesores. The new road was much needed and looks/will look much better than our highways from the 1960's.... But why not add the barrier wall all the way down the median from the bridge (at least) down past Rogers Ave. where the wall exists there? Why not go ahead and make this crowded stretch of highway to hell 3 lanes? So many things that coulda been done but was ignored. I guess the same reason the project to rebuild the world's largest insurance claim count, the AR river bridge, was cancelled. In the end it's Fort Smith - where dreams of economic growth go to die.

Now we know..

Traffic to the Marshall's Museum coming in on 540 may bypass Kelly and Grand Ave and instead be sent to the more aesthetically appealing Rogers Ave. Who was that masked man?

3 Lanes and More

Agree that 540 should have had 3 lanes in each direction long ago but the planning people remind me of the commercial where the lady screams "I've fallen and I can't get up!" If things don't change soon the people making all these strange decisions will be required to build a wall around Fort Smith to keep everyone from leaving.

Could be worse

In NWA, the state went through all the trouble to put up the cable barriers from Fayetteville to Bentonville only to tear them out a year later to start widening 540 to 3 lanes. Efficient use of precious highway dollars.

It Is Worse

If you think the traffic jams on 540 are bad coming into Fort Smith just try the Garrison Avenue River Bridge morning parking lot jam. Where is the planning and why is this happening?

Here's why

Fort Smith, in an attempt over the 100+ years has given the state all power of major roads and highways in Fort Smith. Rogers/Garrison/+Bridge, Zero, 540. There are exceptions, such as Phoenix, etc but, for the most part the state owns all of the primary pathways. Normally, this can be beneficial and may have started with the right motives. Flash forward through 60 years and here we are, a city who the leaders seem to only care about how much power they can gain rather than truly help the area promote growth and we're left with no real value in doing the necessary things, widened roads, highways, new major highways, interstates, etc. If Fort Smith has not been willing to help itself truly promote growth, why would the state invest any money? On I540 they let that highway go as long as they absolutely could without being a hazard to the citizens before doing anything. The roads and bridges were built in the 1960's for Heaven's sake and the only thing ever done was patching the major holes!! Again, why invest money when, economically, Fort Smith has refused to truly contribute to the state? NWA and Little Rock are better expenditures from a financial return standpoint. Fort Smith is too worried about making sure has the same look and feel as the 1860's.

You don't approve of City, State, and Federal it seems.

Are you suggesting the city take over their responsibilities so that you might get a median installed when you want one? Isn't 540 alone more than the cities entire yearly budget?

bridge over troubled waters

As someone who was somehow rear-ended as traffic crawled across the Midland Bridge, I feel your pain. Unless they built another bridge, I'm not sure there is any plan that could have avoided the I540-Midland-Garrison bottlenecks. In a perfect world, the infrastructure would be better on the Oklahoma side of the border to access the west side and downtown, but Oklahoma simply doesn't care about Sequoyah/Le Flore counties, nevermind commuters driving to and from Arkansas.

More Money

Can solve all the problems. All the interstate is being reworked in town and I49 is being completed through Chaffee. That is quite a bit of investment in FS and VB. I think the cost of the 540 work is about $78M. They are in the process of 3 laneing from Bentonville to Fayetteville which has a lot more traffic. When 540 is connected to I49 a lot of the southbound traffic will not go on present 540. If we had the money 49 would be completed, the Bella Vista bypass would be done. Then pigs could fly. This is very expensive and the money just doesn't exist without new federal and state revenues. Anyone for a large transportation tax increase?

Toll Roads

One way to get more money is to install tolls. I think that'd be worth it, as out of town people would bear most of the cost.