'Dogged' Arkansas Planners Keep After Funding for I-49 in Missouri

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission is pursuing a $25 million federal grant to complete a key section of Interstate 49 in Missouri.

The commission’s staff worked closely with the Northwest Arkansas Council in submitting the application for a Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to pay for a portion of the I-49 Missouri-Arkansas Connector. The Missouri Department of Transportation, the Arkansas Department of Transportation, key members of Congress, Missouri lawmakers and the business community in Arkansas and Missouri are supportive of the project.

“U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, in particular, has really gotten involved, contacting the Northwest Arkansas Council and encouraging us to work with the planning commission to seek this grant,” said Nelson Peacock, the president and CEO of the Council, a private nonprofit organization that’s worked with partners to advance major regional infrastructure projects since 1990. “Having Senator Cotton’s voice in Washington in support of this project is helpful on so many levels.

“For the Council, finishing I-49 in rural Southwest Missouri to better connect it to our region is a never-give-up project, and we’re appreciative of the regional planning commission’s dogged pursuit of getting it done. It’s the single most important infrastructure priority to so many in Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas.”

The I-49 Missouri-Arkansas Connector in the past was referred to as the Bella Vista Bypass, but leaders in both states starting calling it the Missouri-Arkansas Connector to better convey the project’s location and importance to a national audience.

Because the BUILD grant maximum to any project is $25 million, the Missouri Department of Transportation is providing more of its own funding to the I-49 Missouri-Arkansas Connector. Missouri earlier this month increased its funding commitment to more than $22 million, a substantial increase from the previous $18 million.

If the federal grant were received, it would start more than $110 million in highway construction spending on the Missouri-Arkansas Connector. That’s because Arkansas has frozen and set aside state funding for two major I-49 projects as it waited for Missouri to determine how it will pay for its five-mile portion of the Connector where the grant funding would be utilized.

Complimenting the federal grant would be the $22 million set aside by Missouri, $35.2 million for 2.5 miles of I-49 in Arkansas near the Arkansas-Missouri line, and $51.4 million in Arkansas for a new interchange where I-49 meets U.S. 71 in Bentonville. The new interchange would replace the roundabout that currently links I-49 and U.S. 71.

The $86.6 million in Arkansas money comes from a half-cent sales tax approved by voters.

The regional planning commission last year applied for an Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) federal grant for the Missouri-Arkansas Connector, competing against more than 230 other projects. It would have taken more than $12 billion to fund all the requests, and the INFRA program in June announced it would provide $1.5 billion to 26 of the INFRA applicants.

The I-49 project’s importance to America’s Heartland is clear. The city of Bella Vista is the only location in the 270-mile stretch between Fort Smith, Arkansas and Kansas City, Missouri where traffic must leave I-49 to continue traveling north or south. The Connector would allow motorists to bypass Bella Vista, swinging west and south of the city on the new four-lane interstate. Motorists would avoid nine traffic signals on U.S. 71, reducing their travel times and improving their safety by accessing the less congested Connector

“Reducing travel time and improving safety are both extremely important, but it also makes so much sense to do what we can to stretch the economic success of Northwest Arkansas into Southwest Missouri,” Peacock said. “The Connector is part of accomplishing all of those goals.”