Highway Commission postpones part of Bella Vista Bypass project


LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Highway Commission endorsed a proposal Wednesday to postpone construction of a section of the Bella Vista Bypass in Northwest Arkansas at the Missouri border until that state can find funding for its six-mile portion of the project.

The commission also selected a firm to handle the sale of the first round of bonds — $469 million — that will fund construction of a system of a four-lane highways connecting all parts of the state. Voters last November approved a 10-year half-cent state sales tax increase to pay for the $1.8 billion project.

Scott Bennett, director of the state Highway and Transportation Department, told the commission that the Missouri Department of Transportation said recently that it did not have enough money to complete its portion of the bypass. The six-mile stretch would run from the Missouri line north eventually to Interstate 49.

Bennett said a proposed ballot initiative to fund Missouri’s portion of the project was rejected by the Missouri Legislature earlier this year. He said there is now talk that an initiated act for Missouri voters consider in 2014.

“It will most likely be November 2014 before we know for sure whether they’ll be able to proceed,” he said.

In Arkansas, construction has already started on much of the $150 million project which will stretch as a two-lane highway from U.S. 71 in north Bentonville west to Gravette and north to the Missouri line, Bennett said.

He said construction of the section from Benton County Road 34 to the Missouri line would be unnecessary at this time because the two-lane road would abruptly stop at the state line.

“We need to hold off … because we don’t want to build it all the way to the state line and then just stop with no connection,” he said.

Highway Commissioner Dick Trammel, who lives in Northwest Arkansas, agreed to the proposal only after being assured that the money designated for the two-mile section of roadway will remain in place. Bennett assured Trammel that the money would not be used for anything else.

After the meeting, Trammel said he wanted “a continuous improvement of the Bella Vista Bypass” and welcomed the highway department’s commit to reserve the money for it.

“It’s very disappointing right now that Missouri can’t come up with the money,” he said. “But you remember they had it once and we didn’t … so, I’m not blaming anyone, but they did tell us that once we get there they’ll match it,” Trammel said.

Also Wednesday, commissioners were told that bids were received Tuesday from six firms interested in selling the bonds for the $1.8 billion highway project. The winning bidder was Bank of America/Merrill Lynch.

Bids on the first set of projects to be built with revenue generated by the half-cent sales tax are expected to be let next year, commission spokesman Danny Straessle said after the meeting.