Tuesday, October 24, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Future I-57 needed soon

The state Transportation Department will soon designate Hwy. 67/167 as the future Interstate 57 to the Missouri state line, reported here first, which will not only ease traffic congestion but create an economic boom here and in north Arkansas.

There’s no telling how long it would take before this ambitious project is completed, but the interstate designation is a good start. Widening 41 miles from Walnut Ridge to Missouri and 11 miles from the state line to Sikeston, Mo., would be the next phase if congressional leaders from both states work together to arrange funding.

Sara Lasure, a spokesperson for Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) told us last week the new interstate “would complete the trade corridor from Dallas to Chicago. Importantly, the new section in Arkansas would relieve traffic on I-40 between Little Rock and Memphis and improve access to a vastly under-utilized crossing over the Mississippi River in Missouri.”

“In Arkansas, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested to construct 121 miles of U.S. 67 to interstate standards from Little Rock to Walnut Ridge. About 83 percent of the route in Missouri is interstate or near-interstate grade,” Lasure said.

Local officials also hailed the latest development. State Rep. Bob Johnson (R-Jacksonville), who made the announcement about the highway upgrade Thursday, said “Future I-57” signs will be placed along Hwy. 67/167 soon. He said highway director Scott Bennett told him the Department of Transportation is drawing up plans to complete the interstate.

Johnson said more hotels and restaurants will be interested in opening locations in Jacksonville if the state highway is converted to an interstate. He also said the Jacksonville Industrial Park on Redmond Road could better attract manufacturers once the I-57 plan is completed.

Johnson, who is running for Jacksonville mayor next year, emphasized the economic benefits of the I-57 project.

“Future interstate means it’s eventually going to be an interstate, which will help industries and businesses decide to locate here,” he said.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said, “This elevates the status of Jacksonville when it comes to recruiting businesses. When the project is completed, it will funnel more people and traffic that in the past have bypassed this area will now make it more attractive to locate businesses as they are driven by numbers and now we will be on new businesses’ radar.”

“There are certain businesses that normally will not even talk to you unless you are on an interstate, we have discovered over the past eight years I have been involved in economic development. This will help us reopen dialogue we’ve had in the past where this was an issue, and it couldn’t have come at a better time as we are in the process of redevelopment of our commercial plans for main street and other downtown property,” Fletcher said.

Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert is pleased too with the I-57 designation. “This is a very good thing...terrific news. This will help everyone along the corridor. Becoming an interstate will spur much more economic growth and development,” he said.

The interstate designation is the logical next step as the decade-long Hwy. 67/167 widening project continues from I-40 to Cabot at a cost of some $265 million, including a $25.5 million north interchange between Austin and Cabot.

The first portion of the interstate-grade project from I-40 to Kiehl Avenue in Sherwood included 8.6-miles at a cost of $57.5 million with a flyover at Brookswood. The Transportation Department is also spending $79 million to six-lane and resurface Hwy. 67/167 from Exit 11 (the Air Force Base exit) to Exit 16 (the Heber Springs/Cabot interchange). Weaver-Bailey Contractors, Inc., of El Paso was awarded the contract. Parts of the highway were recently repaved for $2.69 million.
The widening and resurfacing will continue from Main Street to Vandenberg Boulevard for $61 million. The James Construction Group of Baton Rouge, La., is replacing the Main Street and Redmond Road overpasses in Jacksonville for $42 million. They will be wider, with three lanes of traffic north and south. The company is also building new approaches and ramps for the Main Street and Redmond Road overpasses as well as a new stretch of highway between them.

All this work has taken more than a decade, and the I-57 project will probably take even longer, but thank you, Sen. Boozman, for helping to take it to the next level.