HOT SPRINGS -- A $78.5 million project to widen a section of U.S. 70 between Interstate 30 and Hot Springs will make it much easier and safer to navigate, but it has Spa City boosters worried about the effect of the project's nearly two-year construction schedule on a city heavily dependent on tourism.
Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett (left) speaks at Friday’s news conference. With him (from left) are Wayne Smith, assistant general manager at Oaklawn; Jim Fram, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce; and Steve Honeycutt, general manager at Magic Springs.
Map showing the section of U.S. 70 that will be widened.
About 6 million visitors descend every year on the Garland County town that bills itself as America's First Resort. They generate an annual economic impact of nearly $750 million and support 7,500 jobs with an annual payroll of $127.5 million, according to a recent study commissioned by the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission.
The gateway to Hot Springs is the picturesque segment of U.S. 70 that stretches 18 miles between the town of 35,000 and I-30.
Primarily two lanes with some passing lanes that carry between 15,000 and 17,500 vehicles daily, the road is being widened to five lanes. The project also will rebuild four bridges, straighten curves and flatten hills to ease safety concerns that arose in 2015 after several deadly traffic crashes on the highway.
Motorists who used the route to venture to Hot Springs on Friday encountered a section of the highway that was down to a single lane, which required flaggers on either end to hold up traffic on one end to allow traffic on the other end to pass. The choke point costs motorists an extra 15 minutes.
"For the most part, there is still going to be one lane open in each direction," said Scott Bennett, the director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. "We'll try to keep the passing lanes open. But days like today, there are times we are going to have to have a lane closure. There will be one lane and it will take a little extra time to get through here."
Bennett spoke at a news conference in which he and other highway officials were joined by Hot Springs leaders to remind visitors of the project so they aren't surprised and that there are other options to reach the city. The alternatives include U.S. 270 and Arkansas 5.
"If you depend on outside traffic for your business, I don't blame them for being concerned," said Tom Schueck, the vice chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission. "But between the traffic handling by the contractor and 270 and Highway 5, I think there are plenty of highways to get into Hot Springs."
The executives who spoke at the news conference said they welcomed the project and what it would mean to the region once it is finished.
"We're excited to have this project on Route 70," said Wayne Smith, assistant general manager at Oaklawn Park, which is in the midst of its annual live horse-racing meet. "We know it is inconvenient in some cases, but Exit 98 off I-30 will get you right to us."
Diane LaFollette, executive director of the Mid-America Science Museum, said she has seen no decline in business.
"We haven't had any complaints," she said. "In fact, we're busier now than [we] were at this time last year."
The project began several weeks ago, and so far Smith and others haven't detected any impact on business, but with spring break and the summer season approaching, Hot Springs will start to see a pickup in visitors.
"This [news] conference today was to hopefully pre-empt any kind of impact on business," said Jim Fram, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce. "We wanted to assure people there are other routes in here. This is a pre-emptive strike to prevent people from getting hung up in construction.
"The message is, 'Hot Springs is open for business,'" he said.
Still, the leaders wanted to make sure people were aware of the project and that it doesn't serve as a deterrent to go to Hot Springs, which is home to a national park, two lakes and other attractions and events. The city will play host to the state high school basketball tournament and the annual World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade next month.
"It's very important we get the word out," said Steve Honeycutt, general manager of Magic Springs theme and water park, which doesn't open for the season until April 8.
State highway officials said the 18-mile project will see an increased law enforcement presence throughout construction.
The work involves mostly clearing the right of way of trees and other growth. Widening will begin in the the east and advance west in three 3-mile sections, Bennett said. Existing pavement also will be replaced.
The project is part of his agency's $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program, which consists of about 40 projects covering 200 miles on the state highway system and focuses on projects of regional significance. It is financed mainly with a half-percent statewide sales tax in place for 10 years that voters approved in 2012.
The state said it hopes the project accommodates future traffic growth.
"In the end, it's going to make for a much safer and much more efficient travel between Interstate 30 and Hot Springs," Bennett said.
Steve Arrison, the chief executive officer of the tourism agency Visit Hot Springs, doesn't think the project will be a factor in people's decisions to go to Hot Springs, given the other ways to get to the city.
"I think we'd really be in a bind if 70 was the only way to get here," Arrison said. "But the fact of the matter is, we have a very exceptional alternative route."
Metro on 02/25/2017
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