LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas is set to open the first leg of the long-awaited Bella Vista Bypass in northwest Arkansas, which reroutes traffic from a busy route that links to Interstate 49 in Missouri.
The 18.9-mile project is aimed at relieving congestion on U.S. 71 through Bella Vista and north into Missouri. Eventually, it will become part of I-49, which is planned to go from Canada to New Orleans, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Danny Straessle said.
The three-mile section in Arkansas of the bypass opening Tuesday is west of Hiwasse on Highway 72.
"To have a drivable segment is exciting," said Mike Malone, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit that works with local chambers of commerce and as businesses to help boost commercial activity. "But what's also is exciting are the next two phases about to be under construction. ... It'll better connect northwest Arkansas to the upper Midwest when it's finished."
Straessle said the nearly $20 million project for the three-mile section opening this week was paid partly with federal and state gas tax money and half from a U.S. Department of Transportation grant. The total construction cost for the Bella Vista Bypass is about $150 million, with the department estimating between $50 and 60 million more in needed funds to expand the two-lane highway into four lanes.
Straessle said no timeline or funding has been found for the bypass's widening. He said the department built the two-lane road while knowing it'd later expand into four lanes.
"We only had the money to do two lanes," Straessle said. "We can do two lanes and the interchanges and provide some immediate benefits to the community where they're located."
Gravette mayor Byron Warren said the first section of the bypass will help residents traveling to Bentonville, where Wal-Mart's headquarters are located. Almost 8,000 vehicles drive that stretch daily.
And while the bypass's completion is expected to help ease vehicle congestion in Bella Vista, the city's mayor Frank Anderson said he doesn't foresee a rapid decrease in traffic jams.
"That's not the traffic that's congesting Bella Vista in the early morning or later the day," he said. "It's not going to help immediate our traffic problems ... in the rush hours."
The final two phases for the Bella Vista bypass — one expected to be finished later this year and the other in 2016 — are starting construction, according to the department's director Scott Bennett. They're being funded by the Connecting Arkansas Program, which officially kicked off last week in a ceremony at the department's headquarters in Little Rock.
In 2012, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment that established a 10-year, half-cent sales tax to fund 31 projects to widen and improve state highways.
The bypass will be labeled as Arkansas Highway 549, with "Future Interstate 49" signs, according to highway officials. The state's highway department said last week that portions of Interstate 540 and Highway 71 in western Arkansas would be become I-49. A short segment in Missouri near the Arkansas border is designated as Highway 71. Missouri Department of Transportation spokeswoman Angela Eden said the agency doesn't have the $40 million yet needed to upgrade that part to interstate standards.
Follow Christina Huynh on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ckhuynh