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Ashley County is finally getting a four-lane connection to an interstate.

In Louisiana.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation opened bids last week on projects that would widen a two-lane road that goes south from Hamburg, the county seat, for 15.3 miles to the Louisiana border and just beyond.

The connection also will serve the Ashley County community of Crossett, home to a Georgia-Pacific paper mill, a major employer in the county.

Interstates are seen as a key metric in attracting industry.

But for places like Hamburg and Crossett, "we'll be happy with four-lane access to an interstate," says Mike Smith, executive director for the Crossett Economic Development Foundation. "Four lanes also can make a difference. At least it keeps us in the hunt."

Hamburg Mayor Dane Weindorf also welcomed the news.

"We need new industry," he said. "But we'd also like to keep what we've got. This will help."

The project involves sections of U.S. 82 and U.S. 425. In Louisiana, U.S. 425 already is four lanes. Once completed, the 58 miles between Hamburg and Interstate 20 in Monroe, La., will be four lanes.

Still, Weindorf said he could see motorists from central Arkansas eventually using the route as a more direct way to reach New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast.

Even though the department opened bids on the projects last week, how the department will have the widening project built remains undecided. The agency essentially opened bids on two separate ways to do the work.

One set of plans would have one contractor to widen the entire route. A second set of plans divided the project into two sections as separate projects.

"We wanted to let the contractors tell us what was the most efficient way to do the work with the least impact on the motoring public," said Danny Straessle, the spokesman for the Transportation Department.

JB James Construction LLC of Baton Rouge submitted the lowest bid amount -- $72.1 million -- to widen the entire route. The company said it could do the work in 800 days, or a little over two years.

It also was the lowest bidder for the U.S. 82 section of the project, from Hamburg to U.S. 425.

It said it could widen the 5.3 mile section for $26.7 million in 400 days.

Another Louisiana contractor, Diamond B Construction Co. LLC of Alexandria, said it could widen the section from U.S. 82 to the Louisiana border at a cost of $44.6 million and take 724 days.

Doing the work separately, would cost $71.3 million, or about $800,000 less than if JB James did all of the work.

An internal department committee is scheduled to meet today to review the bids and determine which ones, if any, will move forward, Straessle said.

Another feature of the project is that it extends into Louisiana. U.S. 425 is four lanes, but it narrows to two lanes as it approaches the Arkansas border to connect seamlessly with the two-lane U.S. 425 in Arkansas.

Under an agreement reached with Louisiana transportation officials, the work to widen the two-lane section in Louisiana -- which is little more than a half mile -- will be part of any project to widen U.S. 425 in Arkansas.

The agreement calls for Louisiana to bear that cost, an estimated $2.55 million.

The Arkansas Transportation Department has long wanted to widen the U.S. 425/U.S. 82 section to four lanes as part of a 2009 initiative to establish a grid system of four-lane roads across the state connecting significant cities. The aim of the grid system is to promote safety, mobility and economic development.

The grid system is the focus of the Connecting Arkansas Program, a $1.8 billion initiative to build regionally significant projects around the state.

It is financed in large part by an a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax voters approved in 2012.

About 61 miles of projects worth $432 million have been completed under the program. They include the a $78.6 million project to widen an 18-mile section of U.S. 70 between Benton and Hot Springs.

Last week, the department opened a low bid on a project to widen a 14.5 mile section of U.S. 412 from U.S. 67 in Green County to Arkansas 141 in Lawrence County, which would complete the widening of the route between Walnut Ridge and Paragould.

Now, it is Ashley County, Crossett and Hamburg's turn.

"This is really huge for us to be able to say we have a four-lane connection to I-20," Smith said. "We hope this helps get us on the map."

A Section on 09/17/2018

Print Headline: Bids open for 4-lane link to I-20 from Ashley County

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