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Engineering work needed for $350 million I-49 Arkansas River bridge

story by Michael Tilley
mtilley@thecitywire.com

Ed Thicksten believes building the Interstate 49 bridge and connection between Alma and Barling is a “cornerstone” part of system, and the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department is sticking with a preliminary and conservative estimate that the 15-mile connection will cost $350 million.

Multi-state and local officials gathered June 25 in Alma 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.

In attendance at the June event was Gard Wayt, president of the I-49 International Coalition. The Coalition included “International” in its name because Interstate 29 already exists from Kansas City to Winnipeg, Canada, and completing I-49 from Kansas City to New Orleans will create a 1,700-mile uninterrupted Interstate Trade Corridor from Canada through the heart of America to New Orleans – and, through the Port System of Louisiana, to Central/ South America and points beyond through the expanding Panama Canal. 

“Along the way, this North-South Interstate route will intersect 9 existing East-West Interstate highways to create a comprehensive transportation grid that will enhance the movement of food, goods, energy and people to and from anywhere in mid-America and the rest of the world,” the I-49 Coalition notes on its website.

Their are two sections of I-49 in western Arkansas without designated funding or engineering work. The shortest is the 15-mile section between the I-40/I-49 interchange near Alma and across the Arkansas River into Barling. That work, according to Randy Ort with the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department, will cost in today’s dollars around $350 million. That’s about $23.3 million per mile.

The longer stretch is about 185 miles and runs from just north of Greenwood to Texarkana. Cost estimates for that portion are around $3 billion. That’s about $16.2 million per mile

An about 6-mile section of the interstate is near completion through Chaffee Crossing and stretches from Barling to U.S. 71 South between Fort Smith and Greenwood. That stretch cost $95 million to build, or about $16 million per mile.

Thicksten, a former Arkansas legislator from Alma who does not hold an official position with the I-49 Coalition but has become an advocate for the “I-49 Build the Bridge” push, said lobbying for precise engineering on the bridge is key to obtaining federal and state dollars for the 15-mile section.

“It’s the cornerstone, if you would, for everything that will happen for everything to connect that road between Alma and Texarkana,” Thicksten said. “If you don’t do the engineering, and don’t get firm figures, then our federal legislators and our state legislators can’t do anything. You can’t go to Congress, you can’t go to Congressman (Steve) Womack and say, ‘This is about what we think it will cost.’ That won’t work with this. That just won’t work.”

Thicksten said part of the lobbying push is to convince the AHTD to move forward on precise engineering work. He admitted that Congressional inability to restore future solvency to the federal Highway Trust Fund “puts in jeopardy” existing highway projects and causes state highway agencies to be reluctant to study future project.

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“But what we’d like is to get a commitment from them (AHTD), as much as they can, on this because Congress, at some point, Congress will get this (Highway Trust Fund) done. ... Let’s not wait, let’s be prepared to go forward,” he said.

Thicksten said conversations with Arkansas Highway Commissioners and AHTD officials about the matter have been friendly, but said “it will take continued pressure in a positive way” to get the engineering work authorized and completed.

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