U.S. Sen. John Boozman, Arkansas State Highway Commission Vice-Chair Alec Farmer and Arkansas Department of Transportation officials, including Director Lorie Tudor, were in Walnut Ridge on Friday morning to give an update on Future I-57.
Northeast Arkansas regional leaders, including county and city officials and Chamber representatives, attended the meeting, which was held on the campus of Williams Baptist University.
Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp welcomed attendees, expressing the importance of the I-57 project to economic development efforts.
“When you think about Northeast Arkansas and regional efforts put forth, Future I-57 can really expand efforts,” he said.
Sen. Boozman echoed that sentiment saying, “I’ve seen what economic development does with great road projects. The potential economic development from this project is great.”
He said while it is uncertain how much funding will be available at this time, he and his fellow legislators are committed to push the I-57 project forward.
“We want to get this done as quickly as we can,” he said, as he commended those who have put in the work on the project as a region and a corridor.
Farmer gave a brief recap on the history of the highway, noting that there is “a lot of interest in the status of this project.”
A total of 123 miles have been completed to this point, according to Farmer, who noted that in the 1950s and ’60s the future interstate was completed to the I-40 interchange. That portion of the highway carries approximately 74,000 cars a day.
In 1977, work was completed to Bald Knob, and that stretch now carries 21,000 cars a day. In 2010, the highway was completed to Highway 226 and carries 10,000 cars a day, and the portion to Highway 63 was completed in 2016 and carries 6,000 cars a day.
Costs have changed a lot since those first miles were laid in the 1950s. While total outlay has been $700 million, Farmer said if the entire project was to be completed in present day, the cost would exceed $1 billion.
“We only have 40 miles left to reach the state line,” he said, of the last phase of the project, which has been underway since 2015.
He said numerous potential corridors were narrowed to three, with two remaining as the main options at this point. ARDOT Director Tudor said following existing Hwy. 67 through Pocahontas is not a favorable route.
The proposed route is expected to be presented in spring of 2022, and later next year officials will begin to look at funding. The projected cost is $490 million to $600 million depending on the route.
District Highway Engineer Brad Smithee noted that while construction on the final stretch is still a ways off, there is some work being done on the ground.
“There are a lot of things going on all over the area,” he said. “There is survey work going on, and people placing control points and people doing environmental work. You may see people on the ground. Even if they are not on the route, it may have to do with consideration of the route.”
Farmer said his father was on the highway commission when Highway 67 crossed the White River.
He said that was of major importance as it connected Northeast Arkansas with the rest of the state.
“Completing I-57 is on a whole other level,” he said. “Our region will be connected with Chicago, St. Louis, Texas, Louisiana and other states.”
Jared Wiley, assistant chief engineer for planning with ARDOT, said costs, environmental studies and surveys gathered will be used to determine the final route. Among issues being faced is the environmental impact on mussels and bats in the area.
Wiley, Tudor and Boozman assured attendees that efforts are being coordinated with Missouri officials, as well, to meet the highway as it crosses the state line.
Tudor said the two new location routes are similar in cost, the impacts are similar and both will cross the Black River.
“There’s a lot to be considered,” she said. “One will shake out as the best route.”