FORT SMITH — The state Highway and Transportation Department plans to award a contract next year to build a fourth interchange in the Fort Smith area for the long-planned Interstate 49.
The interchange would be at U.S. 71 south of the city, according to Joe Shipman, District 4 engineer for the Highway Department.
Three other Fort Smith-area interchanges for the new northsouth interstate are nearly finished, according to Shipman.
Highway engineers hope traffic will flow on the 6-mile strip within three to five years. It would be one of the first new stretches of future I-49 to be completed in the state since 2005.
“I-49 will be a huge shot in the arm to us,” said Larry Evans of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority. He spoke Wednesday at a meeting of area planners.
“We want people to see dirt moving in our region,” said Mat Pitsch, manager for the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority in Fort Smith, which convened the meeting. “There has been a resurgence by the Highway Department in this area.”
Interstate 49 is planned to eventually link New Orleans and Canada with a straightthrough thoroughfare that would pass through western Arkansas. Big gaps in the highway exist in Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri.
Arkansas is spending $57.65 million on I-49 interchanges, roadway and other structuresso far in Fort Smith. Complete or nearly complete are interchanges at Arkansas 22 (Rogers Avenue), Roberts Boulevard and Massard Road.
When the fourth interchange on U.S. 71 is under contract and construction is well under way, the state expects to go forward with the last step, Shipman said. That would be paving the highway and opening it to traffic, perhaps by 2014. That schedule depends on available funding.
The projects in Arkansas don’t yet have an official Interstate 49 designation. The state Highway Department refers to the Fort Smith section as “Highway 71 Relocation (I-49).”
In other work on future I-49 in Arkansas, the Highway Department this year started construction on a two-lane bypass around Bella Vista, which would eventually expand to four lanes. In Texarkana, the state completed a 26-mile future I-49 section in 2005. Also, existing Interstate 540 from Alma to Bella Vista is to becomepart of I-49.
Still remaining are several high-cost projects, including a bridge across the Arkansas River in the Fort Smith area and a 185-mile segment between Fort Smith and Texarkana.