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I-49 changes not yet reality through Arkansas

Interstate 49 between Pineville and Kansas City in Missouri was officially designated Wednesday in an unveiling ceremony in a middle school gym near the highway in Joplin. Doing the honors were, from left, MoDOT Director Kevin Keith, Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and Missouri Highways and Transportation Commissioner Rudy Farber. (Courtesy: BOB EDWARDS/MoDOT)

The Associated Press


KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — Thanks to a decision made decades ago to make U.S. 71 a four-lane highway, Missouri has been able to complete most of its section of an interstate that eventually will run from New Orleans to the Canadian border.

A 180-mile stretch of U.S. 71 from Kansas City to Joplin on Dec. 12 was renamed Interstate 49, the culmination of a project that started five years ago to upgrade the existing four-lane expressway to interstate standards. All that's left of Missouri's part of Interstate 49 is a five-mile strip south of Pineville to the state line, where it will connect to a bypass around Bella Vista, Ark.

With the renaming of the highway, Missouri Department of Transportation officials said commercial motor vehicle drivers and some farmers using I-49 should take note that some regulations, including those pertaining to maximum weight and axle weight distribution, are more strict when a truck travels an interstate highway.

Farmers should note that agricultural implements are prohibited from operating under their own power on an interstate highway. That means farmers who might have driven tractors or combines on U.S. 71 will have to haul the machinery after the highway was designated I-49 on Dec. 12.

If the machinery being hauled results in a load that exceeds highway width, height and length restrictions, a permit must be obtained from the Missouri DOT.

“This is a big deal,” said Gard Wayt, executive director of the Interstate 49 International Coalition, formed a decade ago to push for the nonstop, 1,700-mile north-south route across the nation's midsection. “It's a significant portion of the mileage, and even more importantly it's going to add a lot of momentum to the project.”

Wayt, of Shreveport, La., said Louisiana is expected to finish a portion of I-49 connecting to the Arkansas border in the next six to seven months.

Progress in Arkansas is expected to be much slower, even after voters last month approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for highway construction, including two lanes of the Bella Vista, Ark., bypass.

Sean Matlock, the Missouri Department of Transportation's manager of the I-49 project, said Missouri has the money to finish its five-mile portion of the bypass, but the state is waiting until Arkansas gets the funds to pay for its 13-mile section.

“We've told Arkansas that whatever schedule it sets, we will meet them at the state line,” Matlock said. “It made no sense to build a four-lane highway that just dead ends in the middle of nowhere.”

I-49 is mainly new construction in Arkansas, with the cost to complete a stretch between Interstates 30 and 40 through the Ouachita mountains estimated at $2 billion, said Randy Ort, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Transportation. Even with the state's new highway sales tax, he said Arkansas doesn't have much to put toward the I-49 projects because of other transportation needs.

“There's about $2.8 billion needed to complete I-49 in Arkansas,” Ort said. “Basically we've identified $23 billion in needs over the next 10 years, but only $4 billion to address those needs. So money is a big issue.”

Ort said Arkansas has the nation's 12th-largest highway system but ranks 43rd in revenue to pay for it.





“It's a priority and we want to get it done,” Ort said. “We understand there are advantages, not just for Arkansas but for the whole region.”

When finished, the northern part of I-49 will end at the ramp to Interstate 435 and Interstate 470, or what is known as Three Trails Crossing, in southern Kansas City. From there, drivers heading north can get to Interstate 29, which will take them to the U.S. border with Manitoba, Canada, or Interstate 35, which goes as far north as Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior.

The southern part of I-49 ends at the Gulf of Mexico, in New Orleans.

“This is extremely important to the economy of our country,” Wayt said. “That route will intersect with nine existing east-west interstates and will create a transportation grid that will allow us to move goods and people to and from anywhere in the world.”

Missouri's cost for its part of the interstate was estimated at $400 million, far less than the billions of dollars Louisiana and Arkansas are paying for theirs. Because U.S. 71 already was a four-lane highway between Kansas City and Joplin, all the state had to do on that section was remove at-grade intersections by building new interchanges.

Matlock said the portion renamed cost about $63 million. Work to transform it began in 2007.

It has cost about $205 million to build a new interstate highway over the roughly 45-mile stretch from Interstate 44 at Joplin to the Arkansas border, he said. Missouri still has $40 million available for its portion of the Bella Vista bypass. Work on the state's southern part of the project began in the mid-1990s.

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