With federal money iffy, only I-30, I-49 jobs gain state-bid traction

Replacing an Interstate 30 bridge over the Red River in southwest Arkansas and widening a section of Interstate 49 in Northwest Arkansas were the only two state highway projects that officials opened bids on Tuesday, a reflection of the continuing uncertainty in federal transportation funding.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

A map showing the location of road projects.

Together, the two projects accounted for $65.5 million of the $84.5 million worth of low bids that were opened on 56 projects. The other 54 projects involve city streets and county roads that local officials will develop with little input from the state.

The total amount was less than half of the estimated value on the projects originally scheduled to have bids opened Tuesday, but the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department pulled nine projects estimated at $120 million from the bid-letting in anticipation of a slowdown in federal transportation money.

"The real story about today's letting is what's not in there," the department's director, Scott Bennett, said in a statement. "Last month we withdrew nine projects from this letting worth an estimated $120 million due to uncertainty of federal-aid reimbursements available from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

"Here we are in the heart of the construction season, and today we were only able to take bids on two highway projects. It's sad."

In all, the department has suspended opening bids on 70 projects worth $282 million because of federal funding uncertainty.

Last month, Congress approved a two-month extension of legislation authorizing the federal Highway Trust Fund to continue supporting highway and transit projects throughout the nation while lawmakers continue to work on a long-term fix. The trust fund no longer collects enough in federal taxes on fuel to pay for its highway construction commitments.

The I-30 project will be paid for with proceeds from bond issues under the state's $1.2 billion interstate repair program, which voters approved in 2011. The bonds will be repaid, in part, with federal money allocated for interstate maintenance.

The I-49 project is part of the state's $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program, which focuses on projects of regional significance that can reduce traffic congestion. It is financed by a temporary half-percent sales tax that voters approved in 2012 and that is scheduled to be collected for 10 years.

The 54 other projects are much smaller in scope and are divided between city street and county road projects that are paid for primarily with city and county shares of state gasoline taxes.

Jensen Construction Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, submitted the lowest bid for the I-30 bridge project, $37,192,639.01. Like all low bids, it will be reviewed for accuracy before it is approved. Jensen beat out four other companies for the job.

The project will replace a 1,294-foot-long bridge that was constructed in 1967 and that "had reached the end of its useful service life," said Danny Straessle, a department spokesman. About 23,000 vehicles daily cross the bridge that connects Hempstead and Miller counties near the community of Fulton.

The new bridge will be built just to the south of the existing one. It will take about two years to complete, Straessle said.

The I-49 project is the latest of several aimed at tackling the congested corridor through Northwest Arkansas. The project will widen the four lanes to six lanes in a section from U.S. 71B in Fayetteville to U.S. 412 in Springdale, a distance of 3.85 miles. Up to 66,000 vehicles a day travel that portion of I-49, according to department figures.

The project will take about 18 months to complete, Straessle said.

Three other projects underway along the corridor are scheduled to be completed this year.

They include a $16.6 million project from Arkansas 16 to Porter Road in Fayetteville -- construction began in September 2013; a $10.1 million project from New Hope Road in Rogers to U.S. 62/Arkansas 102 in Bentonville -- construction began in October 2014; and a $6.1 million project on the Arkansas 264 interchange in Lowell, including work on about a mile of I-49 -- construction began in January.

The other projects on which bids were opened Tuesday were minor in comparison to the I-30 and I-49 projects.

They ranged from a $1.5 million project to place and spread base and surface material on 5.72 miles of County Road 51 in Little River County to a $62,558.60 project for pavement markings on about 54 miles of various county roads in Sevier County.

Metro on 06/10/2015