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|Road to nowhere: Proposed interstate throttles Arkansas/Louisiana project|
The proposed construction of a new interstate highway connecting northeast Louisiana with southeast Arkansas killed plans to four-lane U.S. Highway 425 from Pine Bluff to the Louisiana state line.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development is bound by a constitutional amendment to four-lane U.S. 425 from Bastrop to the Arkansas state line.
Arkansas Department of Transportation spokesman Randy Ort said Arkansas opted to invest in the construction of a new interstate highway (Interstate 530) between Pine Bluff and Little Rock rather than focusing its resources on four-laning U.S. 425 there.
That move became necessary when former Arkansas Congressman Jay Dickey secured a $100-million earmark to build an interstate highway between Pine Bluff and Little Rock, Ort said.
At that point, Arkansas transportation officials diverted the money they would have spent on improving U.S. 425. Instead, that money will be used on the construction of the new interstate, as the routes of the two highway projects were basically parallel.
"We are now utilizing that money to build the I-530 connector," Ort said.
He was referring to the construction of Arkansas Hwy. 530 from Little Rock to Pine Bluff. Once Arkansas completes construction of the highway it will be designated Interstate 530.
"It would not make much sense to build that project and four-lane 425 given that they are within 10 miles of each other at some points," Ort said.
That means the four-laning of U.S. 425 in Louisiana would lead to a two-lane highway at the Arkansas/ Louisiana state line.
Roughly 11 years ago, former Louisiana Congressman John Cooksey secured some $30 million in federal appropriations to help complete the four-laning of U.S. Highway 165 from Alexandria to Monroe. The construction of that highway is under way today.
It was believed at the time that U.S. 165 would eventually tie in with U.S. 425 from Bastrop to Arkansas. At that time as well, Louisiana officials were banking on Arkansas four-laning U.S. 425 from the Arkansas/Louisiana border north.
Dan Broussard, project engineer for the Louisiana DOTD, said Arkansas's plans concerning U.S. 425 there will have no affect on the construction of U.S. 425 in Louisiana because the Louisiana constitution dictates the highway must be four-laned.
"Our program, the Timed Program, was approved by the vote of the people," Broussard said. "It's in the constitution and is funded by a special 4-cent per gallon tax."
Broussard noted the Timed Program was later modified by a constitutional amendment that specifically required the state to four-lane U.S. 425 from Bastrop to the Arkansas line.
"State law dictates that US. 425 will be four-laned," Broussard said.
The question of what to do about U.S. 425 arose when Arkansas Congressman Mike Ross began exploring the construction of a new interstate connector from Pine Bluff to an unspecified point at Interstate 20 in Louisiana.
Until the construction of I-530 from Little Rock to Pine Bluff became imminent, both Arkansas and Louisiana had planned on connecting the two states via a four-laned U.S. 425.
Arkansas's Ort said that all changed when former congressman Dickey secured the $100 million for I-530.
That money, Ort said, was required to be used for a new interstate connector. Attempts to redirect those funds to other priority projects, such as the U.S. 425 connector, were unsuccessful.
Ort said it was not surprising the proposed I-530 route had an affect on projects in other states, as even Arkansas officials weren't expecting that money and knew nothing of the proposal when word came down from Washington that a new interstate would be built.
"That was nowhere on our radar screen or anyone's radar screen when it happened," Ort said.
Currently, a $500,000-feasibility study is underway to explore connecting Interstate 69 to I-20 somewhere in northeast Louisiana, Ort said.
He was quick to point out that no route had been proposed and added that no route could be proposed until after environmental studies were completed.
"That's when you start going in and identifying potential routes and lines," Ort said.
Ort said funding for an environmental impact study of the connector has not been made available and would not become available until after the feasibility study is completed later this year.
Even then, I-530 between Pine Bluff and Monroe could be a long way off.
"It's all predicated on I-69 (Interstate 69)being in placed," Ort said.
That highway is years from being completed, he said.
I-69 is expected to be built from Toronto, Canada to Memphis, Tenn. A that point, the highway would cut across southern Arkansas before turning more southward in the Shreveport/Bossier City area. From there, I-69 would travel to Waco, Texas, en route to Mexico.
Arkansas highway officials say I-530 would interact with I-69 in the Pine Bluff area. Thus, the construction of I-530 from Pine Bluff to I-20 in northeast Louisiana would give the area a direct link I-69.
A long-time proponent of an interstate highway connecting northeast Louisiana with Arkansas and beyond, Ben Marshall first advocated extending I-69 through northeast Louisiana in 1992. He was one of several officials from the area who lobbied Congress to consider it then.
Though northeast Louisiana was left out of the when the time came to designate a route for I-69, Marshall said elected officials and other community leaders in the area must take advantage of the opportunities that exist in light of the proposed construction of I-530 to I-20 in Ouachita Parish.
"Our lawmakers must act immediately to take advantage of this possibility," said Marshall, a former president of the Ouachita Parish Police Jury.
"We simply cannot afford to let the tail of the Timed Program wag the common sense dog," Marshall continued. "It seems there is great momentum for an interstate.
"Road funds are hard to come by. I don't want to be told by some bureaucrat in some future public meeting that the reason we can't have an interstate is because we blew our precious allocation on a road to nowhere."