$2B program to improve Arkansas highways kicks off

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - State transportation officials marked the start of a nearly $2 billion construction program to improve and widen roadways in a ceremony Wednesday in Little Rock.

The event officially kicked off the department’s Connecting Arkansas Program, a $1.8 billion project that is funded through a 2012 voter-approved, half-cent sales tax set to expire in 2023.

“It’s a great day for Arkansas, a great day for northwest Arkansas” Scott Bennett, director of the state Highway and Transportation Department, said.

Bennett said the highway program will create and sustain about 40,000 jobs across Arkansas, as well as connect different parts of the state with four-lane highways.

Bennett also announced Wednesday that the federal government had given its permission to label portions of Interstate 540 and Highway 71 in western Arkansas as Interstate 49. New signs will start going up next week on the stretch of highway from Alma to Bella Vista.

“We are pleased to have this new designation,” Bennett said. “This is something we have been working on for several months.”

Highway Commissioner Dick Trammel said renaming the route is a part of the agency’s goal to upgrade the U.S. 71 corridor in western Arkansas to interstate highway standards. The Arkansas section of the road will eventually be incorporated into a multi-lane highway running from Kansas City, Mo., to New Orleans.

Trammel and other members of the Arkansas Highway Commission were in attendance at the ceremony, as well as several state legislators, mayors and chamber of commerce members.

The first of the program’s 31 projects is a six-mile portion of the new Bella Vista Bypass from Bentonville to Hiwasse in northwestern Arkansas. The bypass is a multi-phased project to construct two lanes of what will be a 19-mile, four-lane interstate.

“The Bella Vista Bypass is huge, because all of the traffic around Bella Vista,” said Mike Malone, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “It’s a growing community. A lot of people commute in and out of Bella Vista.”

The other 30 projects in the Connecting Arkansas Program include widening and improvement to highways statewide.

The department is still waiting for the Federal Highway Administration’s approval to rename parts of Interstate 40 and the border between Arkansas and Louisiana as I-49, according to Bennett.

Another highway in eastern Arkansas is called U.S. 49, but Bennett said highway officials aren’t concerned about potential confusion between I-49 and U.S. 49.

“They’re far enough apart that there shouldn’t be,” he said.

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