Appointed and paid officials with the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department got an earful again about the importance of funding and building Interstate 49 through western Arkansas.
The earful came courtesy of the second day of a joint meeting in Fort Smith of the Arkansas House Interim Committee on Public Transportation and the Senate Interim Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs.
Committee members first met Wednesday (Mar. 17) at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith to hear from Mat Pitsch about the potential of the recently formed Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority. The connection of the authority to I-49 was stressed during that meeting, according to this report from the Times Record.
I-49 would create a north-south interchange in the Fort Smith area with a major east-west interstate (I-40). This interchange would connect the commercial hubs of New Orleans and Kansas City with numerous hubs of commerce stretching between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. All that stands in the way of this interstate reality is several small segments at the Arkansas-Louisiana and Arkansas Missouri borders and a large 185-mile segment between Texarkana and Fort Smith that posts a price tag of between $3 billion-$4 billion.
The Thursday meeting was held at Graphic Packaging, one of the modern manufacturing plants to be located at Chaffee Crossing in the past five years. About 45 were in attendance, including legislators and legislative staff.
Ivy Owen, executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, presented the 11 legislators gathered and Arkansas Highway Commission Dick Trammel with more than 670 names of people who signed a petition calling for the completion of I-49 between Canada and New Orleans. The online petition gathered the signatures between Mar. 12-18. While most signatures were from the Fort Smith area, there were several from Northwest Arkansas and a few from as far away as Oklahoma City and Las Vegas.
Trammel and Frank Vozel, deputy director of the AH&TD, also heard from Patrick Combs about the importance of I-49 to Graphic Packaging. Combs, plant manager of the Fort Smith plant that employs about 420, said the plant ships out about 25 truckloads a day of finished product, and brings in 18-20 trucks a day of raw materials. Much of the raw material, he said, comes from Louisiana.
“Freight is a really big piece of the (profit) puzzle,” Combs explained. “I-49 would greatly reduce those freight costs.”
Michael Milton, a member of the FCRA board and employee of Mars Petcare, said I-49 “would be a big benefit” to a company also spending a lot on shipping costs. Mars, the next door manufacturing neighbor to Graphic Packaging, employs 50 in the production of specialized dog food, and will employ more than 150 when the newly opened plant is fully operational.
Rep. Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith, reminded Trammel of the request by several public and private groups in the area to arrange an Arkansas Highway Commission meeting in Fort Smith.
“I’m doing my best to get them here,” Trammel responded, adding that the other four members of the commission are aware of the request and have agreed to begin holding some of their meetings away from Little Rock.
Vozel, the No. 2 paid staffer at AH&TD, said the department is “definitely committed” to building the section of I-49 that connects from Arkansas 22 in Barling to U.S. 71 South north of Greenwood. That section would create a commercial loop around Barling and Fort Smith, but would remain disconnected from I-40 and I-540 between Alma and Fayetteville
“That’s in our program,” Vozel told the legislators and audience.
Legislators attending the meeting were:
Sen. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith
Rep. Duncan Baird, R-Lowell
Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison
Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock
Rep. Frank Glidewell, R-Fort Smith
Rep. Stephanie Malone, R-Fort Smith
Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville
Rep. Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith
Sen. Bill Pritchard, R-Elkins
Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron