Highways connect people and towns and add economic vitality to an area. A good transportation system can be a harbinger of jobs and growth. It's for these reasons that the voters in Arkansas passed the Connecting Arkansas Program (CAP).
Now, six years after the half-cent sales tax was proposed and passed by Arkansas voters and five-plus years since it went into effect (January 1, 2013), the number of projects due to the CAP is skyrocketing. The tax, which is expected to raise $1.8 billion dollars is set to sunset on July 1, 2023, will impact 200 miles of the more than 16,400 miles that make up the Arkansas' highway system. However, the projects were specifically selected to connect major population centers in the state.
According to Danny Straessle, Public Information Officer for the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT), "Each of the projects involved in the CAP were selected in terms of need and are critical to the transportation network in Arkansas. They'll increase convenience and mobility and make commuting safer."
The CAP involves 36 projects spread throughout the state and will impact 92 percent of state highway traffic. Some of the projects are new, though many are not. The majority of roadwork will focus on widening and connecting highways.
The ARDOT put great thought into CAP before proceeding. Each of the CAP projects need to be completed by 2023. That means deciding which to include was a process.
“These are all high-dollar projects, ones we would not be able to program for completion in a reasonable amount of time if it weren’t for an affirmative vote of the people,” Straessle said.
In addition, ARDOT, which finds funding challenging ($9.6 billion in needs, only $4.5 billion in revenue to use), is careful about budgeting and is the third most efficient department of transportation in the country.
"We hired a program manager firm for CAP to do the coordination and act as a consultant on construction design," says Straessle. "We did this rather than staffing up because we didn't want to be stuck with a larger payroll when the program ends."
To date, 11 projects have been completed due to CAP. Those projects cover 61 miles and have cost $432 million. The first project to be started and completed was I-40 in Pulaski County. It was begun in late 2014 and completed in August of 2016. The interstate was widened to six lanes over a 5.5-mile stretch. It enhanced the transportation connection between Conway and North Little Rock.
The most recent project, which was completed in June, was U.S. Highway 70 in Garland/Saline County. It was a five-lane widening of Highway 70 between Hot Springs and Interstate 30 in Benton. The additional lanes increase capacity and improves traveler safety. The $78.5 million project impacted 18 miles of highway.
Benton, Arkansas is in the northwest part of Arkansas and is the corporate home of Walmart. The retail outlet is a magnet for growth and development. According to Straessle, the northwest part of the state is the fastest growing part of Arkansas, making improved transportation to and from the area an imperative.
This year is primed to be a big year for the CAP program. Currently there are 6 projects under construction as part of CAP. Their total cost will be $276 million, and they will impact 24 miles of roadway. This year there are 19 projects scheduled that will impact 99 miles and cost $1.27 billion dollars.
One of the current projects is I-630. It involves widening the interstate to eight lanes over a 2.5-mile stretch. The $87.5 million project is expected to be completed in early of 2020. It involves tearing down and replacing an overpass, which is over a local city street. Also included is the building of a noise reduction wall. The entire project is scheduled to take 19 months.
Included in the projects slated for 2018 is the biggest transportation construction job ever done (in terms of dollars) in the state of Arkansas. The $630 million I-30 project is also the first one being done via design-build in the state. "The ARDOT engineers felt it was appropriate to use design build methodology on this project because of its complexity," says Straessle.
A team is expected to be selected by the end of 2018. Despite the necessity of the project, ARDOT needed to consider budget due to its limited funds, which impacted how the team was selected. "We went to contractors and said, 'Tell us what you can do for 630 million’," said Straessle.
Time was also an issue as the goal is to complete the project as soon as possible due to the extensive use of the highway. "It's the most heavily traveled route in the state as it currently carries 125,000 cars a day," says Straessle. "There’s a finite area to work in, and it's going to require a herculean effort to get it done."
The project involves replacing a crossing over the Arkansas River and other overpasses and construction of a noise wall. It will reconstruct a highway that was completed in the late 1950's. The road goes through the heart of a downtown area and touches the historical and financial sector and a vibrant recreation area along the river banks in Little Rock.
While Straessele does not have specific economic benefits of CAP to point to yet, he expects commercial development to come shortly after more projects are completed. "Developers are looking to develop in the area, and that will drive business growth and jobs," says Straessle. "The highway is the backbone of economic development in the state, and we can't attract industry without it."
ARDOT has gone to great lengths to ensure the taxpayers of Arkansas are getting the most for their tax dollars associated with CAP. When the CAP projects are completed, every county in Arkansas will feel the benefits.
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