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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK The terminal and front entrance is visible Friday, June 22, 2018, at the Northwest Arkansas Regioinal Airport in Highfill. The 20-year-old terminal building at the Northwest Arkansas Regioinal Airport will be getting a makeover in the next couple of years. Board members on Wednesday had in an informal input session with engineers and architects to give them a general idea of what they'd like the terminal to look like after the planned renovation and expansion. The work should result in a new front door for the terminal including a new building across the loop drive from the main terminal and a second-floor bridge into what is now the front of the terminal.

HIGHFILL -- Officials could cut the ribbon on a new access road to the Northwest Arkansas National Airport by 2024 or early 2025, if all goes well.

The airport also may see air cargo carriers locate operations at the airport in about the same time frame or earlier.

An access road to the airport has been on the wish list since it opened in 1998. The Arkansas Department of Transportation last year took over much of the project, including shepherding the required environmental assessment through the approval process with the Federal Highway Administration.

The department will also build the road.

John Fleming, who heads up the Transportation Department's environmental division, told airport officials Wednesday he expects to have environmental approval and 60% of the project designed early next year. Survey work is ongoing, including looking for any cultural or archeological sites in the area.

A specific route will have to be determined.

"There's a lot of factors in that timing decision. The 2024 to 2025 time frame would be about as close as we could be right now," Fleming said. "A big part of that is construction and utility relocation timing and acquiring of right of way."

Right of way acquisition is expected to take about 11 months, when it begins. Construction is anticipated to take about two years.

Mike Johnson, airport board member who is chairman of the Access Road Task Force, said a five-year time frame meshes well with when passengers are anticipated to return to Northwest National in significant numbers and with other ongoing airport expansion projects.

Johnson also said four to five years isn't that long in the world of capital projects. Road projects around the region typically take three to six years, he said.

The vote in the November general election on whether to make permanent a state half-cent sales tax dedicated to roads will be critical to the project, said Philip Taldo, a state highway commissioner and airport board member.

"We're assuming that it's going to pass with that schedule, but, if it does not, all bets are off," he said.

That access road could play a role in getting United Parcel Service and Federal Express to locate operations at Northwest National, according to Kevin Hoffman, with Landrum & Brown, aviation consultants Those companies have to move packages by truck before and after they travel by air.

Hoffman, who recently completed a cargo feasibility study, said the airport has adequate facilities, lots of room to build and there's enough demand in the area to support cargo carrier operations such as UPS and FedEx, which have both expressed interest in Northwest National.

"I think it's just a matter of time until Northwest Arkansas is gonna get one or both of these carriers in there," Hoffman said. "I think, based on the volume, that they'll both eventually be there."

He expects one or both companies to locate to Northwest National before 2024 or 2025, but a new road would provide easier access, expedite moving cargo and attract ancillary businesses to the airport area.

"The sooner the better, but 2025 is fine," Hoffman said. "I don't think it will change the carriers plans if it doesn't come on until then."

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Road to a connector

The original plan was for the Northwest Arkansas National Airport Authority to build and pay for a long driveway to the airport from Arkansas 612 at Elm Springs. That plan was shelved in favor of working with the state on a road that’ll likely end up being a state highway.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation in June 2019 offered to design the access road. Airport officials accepted the offer, saying it will speed the process of getting the road done.

An improved connection to get from Interstate 49 to XNA has been identified as a priority project of regional significance for more than 20 years and is part of the region’s 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan.

Source: Northwest Arkansas National Airport

Ron Wood can be reached by email at rwood@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWARDW.

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