Dozens of Northwest Arkansas leaders and community members gathered today with the Arkansas State Highway Commission to celebrate the completion of the largest section of the Bella Vista Bypass.
The completed 6.4-mile, $52.7 million project makes it possible to drive 12 miles on the bypass from Benton County Road 34 to U.S. Highway 71B without encountering a stoplight. Today’s ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on the new section of the highway that’s just west of a roundabout where it connects with U.S. Highway 71B.
“I want to congratulate the real heroes in this project, the voters of Arkansas who supported the Connecting Arkansas Program in 2012 and agreed to tax themselves, to see projects like this built,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, one of the speakers at today’s event.
The 12-mile highway will be Arkansas 549 for now, but it’ll have signs to notify motorists that it is also future Interstate 49. The new section opens to traffic next week, said Highway Department spokesman Danny Straessle.
Arkansas 549 is a two-lane highway, but Arkansas has the estimated $50 million necessary to add two lanes and turn it into an interstate. The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department intends to wait to build the other lanes until Missouri has the $34 million needed for that state's 4.8-mile portion of the bypass.
“The far west side of Bella Vista may have before seemed remote, especially for those commuting to work or other activities,” said Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie. “The opening of the Bella Vista Bypass will make it easier for our residents to reach their workplaces and go to the places they love to visit across the region without taking away the things they love about calling Bella Vista home. I feel it is just one more reason that makes Bella Vista a truly unique city in the region.”
Today’s event was a regional celebration as people from nearby communities such as Bentonville, Bella Vista and Gravette were joined by leaders from Rogers, Pea Ridge, Springdale, Fayetteville, Prairie Grove, and at least three Missouri communities: Joplin, Neosho and Pineville.
Arkansas Highway Commission Chairman Dick Trammel said Northwest Arkansas leaders at least 25 years ago talked about the need for a Bella Vista Bypass. “You know what’s neat?” Trammel asked the crowd. “It’s here.”
Construction began in April 2014 on the newest section of the Bella Vista Bypass that stretches from Arkansas Highway 72 that’s just east of the Hiwassee community to U.S. Highway 71B.
A temporary roundabout has been constructed as part of the project to provide access to the bypass as well as to U.S. Highway 71B that offers a short path to I-49. The roundabout will eventually be replaced by a large interchange that’s designed and ready to be built once Missouri’s portion of the bypass is funded.
Missouri’s ability to identify funding for its portion of the bypass is incredibly important to Northwest Arkansas and to trucking companies all over the U.S. that move freight through middle America. Bella Vista is the only gap on I-49 between Fort Smith and Kansas City, and the significant number of traffic signals in Bella Vista cause major delays for truckers and other motorists. Once I-49 is complete in both Arkansas and Missouri, motorists will be able to avoid all of those traffic signals.
"We’re ready to go when Missouri makes its connection on the south end,” said Scott Bennett, the director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.
To date, $128.6 million has been spent by Arkansas on the Bella Vista Bypass.
The new portion of the Bella Vista Bypass was one of the major projects included in the Connecting Arkansas Program, a statewide initiative supported by a half-cent sales tax. Voters approved the sales tax in November 2012 and the tax expires in 2023.
Northwest Arkansas legislators who voted to send the sales tax proposal to voters in 2012 include former and current members: State Sen. Jim Hendren, former State Sen. Sue Madison, former State Rep. Les Carnine, former State Rep. Tim Summers, former State Rep. Mary Lou Slinkard, former State Rep. Jonathan Barnett, former State Rep. Bryan King, State Rep. Greg Leding and State Rep. Uvalde Lindsey. King and Lindsey are now state senators.
Major Northwest Arkansas projects supported by the sales tax include widening sections of Interstate 49 to six lanes between Fayetteville and Bentonville, building the first section of the U.S. 412 Bypass of Springdale that’s now under construction near the J.B. Hunt Transport Services headquarters in Lowell, and building key sections of the Bella Vista Bypass.
“You are standing on evidence,” Bennett told the crowd that gathered today at the Bella Vista Bypass. “You’re standing on evidence that the people of Arkansas want and support more infrastructure, and they are willing to pay for it.”