LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Arkansas Department of Transportation is exploring funding alternatives for the construction and operation of a section of Interstate 49 after a study found that using tolls would’t raise the needed revenue.
The department considered using toll revenue to build, maintain and operate a nearly 14-mile section of Interstate 49 from Interstate 40 in Crawford County to Arkansas 22 in Sebastian County, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. The project also involves a new bridge over the Arkansas River.
The new route is designed to improve transportation in western Arkansas by providing another river crossing. It also would help complete a congressionally designated high-priority corridor connecting Kansas City, Missouri, to south Louisiana through Arkansas.
In Arkansas, I-49 is complete between Bentonville and Alma and between Texarkana and the Louisiana border. In Missouri, it is complete except for a section between Pineville, Missouri, and the Arkansas border. I-49 is complete in Louisiana south to Lafayette, La., except for a connection through Shreveport.
Building the project — ideally, as a four-lane route — would cost an estimated $776 million, an amount that the department doesn’t have available.
The department doesn’t have the necessary funding available, and a study by infrastructure consultants HNTB Corp. found that tolls wouldn’t raise close to that amount.
Officials also considered building the four-lane route as a toll road, which would push construction costs to $787 million. Operation of the toll road and its maintenance costs would tack on another $118 million.
An analysis of the toll project’s potential revenue found that the route would generate about $243 million annually, which isn’t much in comparison to the project’s costs, said Scott Bennett, the department’s director.
The Arkansas Highway Commission determined that it’s critical to look at alternative ways to help defray costs, considering the importance of the project, its high cost and the limited amount of money the department has available.
In other words, not much in comparison to the costs associated with the project, Scott Bennett, the department director, said at a meeting of the Arkansas Highway Commission last week.
“You have to go ahead and pay to build it and then you could charge a toll for the cost of collecting the toll,” he said.
But given the importance of the project, its high cost and the limited amount of money the department has available, it was prudent to look at alternative ways to help defray the cost, including tolls, according to the Arkansas Highway Commission, which authorized the study two years ago.
Still, it is but the latest project in Arkansas to fall short as a toll facility.
“We can’t seem to get tolls to work,” Tom Scheuck, a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission, said at a meeting of the commission Wednesday.
It isn’t like the department hasn’t tried.
“We’ve been through more than 50 tolling studies in the last 50 years — 50,” Bennett said.
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