Multi-state and local officials came together Wednesday (June 25) in a church parking lot in Alma not just to commemorate the designation of Interstate 49 behind them, but to start a campaign to build a stretch of Interstate from Fort Smith to Alma that they say would eventually give Fort Smith a non-stop interstate route to Canada.
Finishing that route could cost at least $3 billion just to finish the work through Arkansas, according to Arkansas highway officials.
Gard Wayt, executive director of the I-49 International Coalition, said the recent designation of I-49 from Alma to Bella Vista (previously known as I-540) as well as the designation of a stretch from just north of the Arkansas border to Kansas City in Missouri shows that "huge things" are happening.
"Those are huge events and it really generates some momentum. What you're doing here today is going to generate momentum and we want to keep that going," he said, also pointing to work taking place now on the Bella Vista Bypass in Benton County, which will eventually carry I-49 into Missouri.
Ivy Owen, executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, spoke of how the six mile, $95 million stretch of what will eventually be part of the interstate has transformed development of the former United States Army Base. He said without the interstate development taking place, large projects like the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine and ArcBest were unlikely to have located out on the far eastern edge of Fort Smith.
And he said what will ultimately make what is now known as Chaffee Crossing and the Fort Smith area even more attractive for investors and developers is not only the I-49 designation unveiled in Alma on Wednesday, but also completing the stretch of interstate between Chaffee Crossing and Alma.
"When the veil comes off of this sign behind us and it says I-49, that will be a significant amount of I-49, new I-49, that's now open that gets it down all the way to the river. So what's left is what you see below you is build the bridge," said Owen.
And while there may be doubt as to whether or not the interstate will ever be built all the way down to Chaffee and eventually to Texarkana to the south, Owen said he has heard detractors cast doubt before and be proven wrong.
"Somebody asked me yesterday (if I was) excited about this. Oh boy, this is about the most exciting thing that's happened to me because when I walked in the door in 2007, someone told me this would never happen. (It would) never happen in my lifetime, never happen. And I got kind of depressed about that and I said, 'Well, I don't believe that. I just do not believe that.’"
Owen said much of the success in not only getting the I-49 designation from Alma to Bella Vista, but also the section of interstate built at Chaffee, was the work of Arkansas Highway Commissioner Dick Trammel, who Owen said promised to do all he could to get the interstate complete.
Trammel spoke Wednesday and told the crowd of leaders from Little Rock to Fort Smith that highways like I-49 were not political highways, and urged everyone to join hands to get the funding not only from Little Rock, but from Washington, D.C., to complete the interstate.
"You know, I'm going to quote a guy I knew a long time ago and I worked with (who said), 'You know, there ain't no Democratic and Republican highways. They're all the same color,'" he said. "And we all have to come together for better infrastructure and better highways. And that's what we did with GARVEE (federal highway program) and Issue 1 and because of you, the people. Not me, not the governor, not the commission, but because of you, the people.”
He said while constructing the bridge and 13-mile stretch from Alma to Fort Smith and eventually building out the remaining interstate from Fort Smith to Texarkana may seem "unrealistic," it is possible if communities and leaders in government come together to find the resources necessary.
As for how the money will come, that is anybody's guess with Congress flatly denying almost all earmark requests and The Washington Post reporting that the Highway Trust Fund could go broke within months.
Trammel said while he can't promise anything, he is confident the designation of I-49 in Benton, Crawford and Washington Counties is just the beginning of what will eventually be an interstate that stretches through all of Arkansas and brings a non-stop flow of traffic from Canada to the ports in New Orleans.
Former Rep. Ed Thicksten of Alma said all of that starts with the bridge over the Arkansas River, and urged residents from across the region to visit Interstate49BuildtheRoad.org to sign a petition urging funding and construction of the bridge.
Previous estimates to build the I-49 connection from Alma, across the Arkansas River and connect to the I-49 route in Barling have been around $350 million. The City Wire has requested from the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department an update on the estimate.
"The highway department has a job to do and they're willing to do it when they get some money and they're going to get some money when the federal government works. So, that's gonna' happen. … But if you don't start somewhere, you can't never finish it. We've got to show here in the River Valley and our friends in Northwest Arkansas how important that bridge is to us and I mean right now we've got to start.”