LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas is set to open the first leg of the long-awaited Bella Vista Bypass in Northwest Arkansas, which reroutes traffic from a busy route that links to Interstate 49 in Missouri.
The 18.9-mile project is aimed at relieving congestion on U.S. 71 through Bella Vista and north into Missouri. Eventually, it will become part of I-49, which is planned to go from Canada to New Orleans, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Danny Straessle said.
The three-mile section in Arkansas of the bypass opening Tuesday is west of Hiwasse on Arkansas 72.
"To have a drivable segment is exciting," said Mike Malone, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit group that works with local chambers of commerce and as businesses to help boost commercial activity. "But what's also is exciting are the next two phases about to be under construction. ... It'll better connect Northwest Arkansas to the upper Midwest when it's finished."
Straessle said the nearly $20 million project for the three-mile section opening this week was paid partly with federal and state gas tax money and half from a U.S. Department of Transportation grant. The total construction cost for the Bella Vista Bypass is about $150 million, with the department estimating between $50 and 60 million more in needed funds to expand the two-lane highway into four lanes.
Straessle said no timeline or funding has been found for the bypass's widening. He said the department built the two-lane road while knowing it'd later expand into four lanes.
The final two phases for the Bella Vista bypass — one expected to be finished later this year and the other in 2016 — are starting construction, according to the department's director Scott Bennett. They're being funded by the Connecting Arkansas Program, which officially kicked off last week in a ceremony at the department's headquarters in Little Rock.
In 2012, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment that established a 10-year, half-cent sales tax to fund 31 projects to widen and improve state highways.
The bypass will be labeled as Arkansas 549, with "Future Interstate 49" signs, according to highway officials. The state's highway department said last week that portions of Interstate 540 and U.S. 71 in western Arkansas would be become I-49. A short segment in Missouri near the Arkansas border is designated as U.S. 71. Missouri Department of Transportation spokeswoman Angela Eden said the agency doesn't have the $40 million yet needed to upgrade that part to interstate standards.