BENTON COUNTY -- The Arkansas Department of Transportation has put on indefinite hold a feasibility study for a new highway to connect the Bella Vista Bypass and the Springdale Northern Bypass or U.S. 412 via the area of the Northwest Arkansas National Airport.
Dave Parker, a highway department spokesman, said the study was put on hold for a couple of reasons.
"One, there is no funding attached to it, and the study itself had created a misunderstanding and worry by the local residents so, in the best interest of the public, we decided to put it on hold," Parker said.
Parker said planning studies are done very early in the process of any highway project and this one was no exception.
"You do a planning study and that project, if it ever is adopted, it could be 20 years before construction happens," Parker said.
He said the study could be resurrected in the future if warranted.
"All I can say is it's on hold. Whether it would get revisited tomorrow or in 10 years, I have no idea," Parker said.
Tim Conklin, assistant director at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said that, while there were no immediate plans, or money, to build the road, there is still a critical need to plan now for how and where people will get around the area in coming years. Planners are expecting close to a million residents in the region by 2045 with more than half of those living in Benton County.
"Many of the roads in Benton County that are two-lane, rural, open-ditch highways that are facing significant development pressure and urbanization are going to need to be improved to accommodate that growth," Conklin said. "I understand they're pausing right now but, in the future, we need to better understand what is going to be needed to handle that growth."
Conklin said a big part of their long-range transportation plan involves looking at improving the highway system in Benton County and elsewhere in Northwest Arkansas to meet anticipated needs.
The study started in the summer of 2019 to determine if a highway is needed, to identify feasible alternative routes and to develop cost estimates. The department came up with two alternatives that were presented for public comment in August 2021.
One was near Northwest Arkansas National Airport. The second starts at the proposed future airport access road and runs west of the airport, then north, connecting with the Bella Vista Bypass at Hiwasse or east of town.
At the time, highway officials said those two routes would provide greater benefit to the transportation system by providing connectivity and access, travel time savings and system redundancy. They also would have the least impact on communities and the environment. Another alternative, which was dismissed, would have run almost directly north, passing west of the airport and connecting with the Bella Vista Bypass at Hiwasse.
The study area looked at an oval-shaped area west of Bentonville and Arkansas 112 and east of Springtown, Decatur and Gravette. It stretched from the Bella Vista Bypass on the north to U.S. 412 on the south. The airport sits roughly in the middle.
Census data for smaller cities in or near the study area show five towns have had large population gains since 2010.
The 2040 Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Transportation Plan, developed by Regional Planning, proposes north-south corridor improvements within the study area west of Interstate 49.
The main goal of a proposed road was to improve connectivity with secondary goals of improving mobility, relieving congestion, improving safety and reliability and strengthening the region's economic competitiveness, according to the highway department.
The study was somewhat related to another Transportation Department study looking at an access road to Northwest Arkansas National Airport. The Arkansas Department of Transportation expects to start right-of-way acquisition sometime this year and hopes to have a new, improved connection between the airport and Springdale Northern Bypass in Benton County done within five years, officials said in October.
The preferred route would be about 3.4 miles and have no entrance or exit ramps between the beginning and end. On the northern end, at the airport, the new road will narrow to two lanes near Malone Road and there will be a signaled intersection at Airport Boulevard and Arkansas 264. Down the road, a larger interchange is envisioned to accommodate future traffic.
Almost 242 acres of right-of-way would be required. Construction is estimated to cost $79.7 million and right-of-way acquisition another $5.8 million for a total of $85.6 million. That compares to an estimated $66.7 million for a partial new route and $57.1 million to improve existing roads.
An earlier environmental assessment looked at several alternatives including doing nothing; building a new road; improving existing roads, including Arkansas 112 and Arkansas 264; and a combination of a new road and improving Arkansas 112 and Arkansas 264.
The Department of Transportation is expected to design, build and pay for the project as part of the highway improvement program approved by voters.
The plans call for the airport access road to connect to the Springdale Northern Bypass west of the Arkansas 112 interchange. Plans are to have the Springdale Northern Bypass extended west to connect with U.S. 412, close to Old Highway 68, within the next five years as well. Right-of-way acquisition for that project is underway.
A 2011 study found a western beltway from the Bella Vista Bypass to Interstate 49 in the Greenland area will be needed someday, but no money was identified for the project.