LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — State highway officials have commissioned a study to determine whether the state should use tolls to build a new section of Interstate 49 in western Arkansas.

The Arkansas Highway Commission is also asking consultants to study whether a private company should operate and maintain the proposed tollway instead of the state. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/2ck0cJv ), highway officials are considering the tolls and public-private partnership for a 13-mile stretch of Interstate 49 from Interstate 40 south to Arkansas 22 in Barling.

“The thought, if the money part works out, is that a private entity would design, build, operate and maintain the facility until it is paid for and can become a ‘free’ route,” Scott Bennett, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department director, said last week. “Many times, with facilities such as this, there is a shortfall between the revenue generated from tolls and what is needed to build the facility.”

Interstate 49 is a north-south corridor between Kansas City, Missouri, and Shreveport, Louisiana. More than $1.2 billion has been spent on improvements to the Arkansas section, but portions of the route have not yet been built. The largest unbuilt section is from De Queen to Alma.

State highway officials estimate that the new 13-mile corridor would cost $380 million, which includes $110 million needed to build a new bridge over the Arkansas River.

“You’ve got to connect the bridge on either side to make it usable,” Bennett told the commission last week.

Tim Allen, the president and chief executive officer of the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce, said that completing the I-49 segment will attract and retain manufacturing jobs in the region.

“We have I-49 that is 99 percent complete from I-40 to Canada,” he said in an interview. “Then we have this gap between I-40 and Fort Smith. Connecting that dot is important to our manufacturing base. We have the largest manufacturing base in Arkansas.”


Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com