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The northwest passage: the new U.S. 71 from Alma to Fayetteville will be a $220 million answer to prayers.

Like many Arkansans who have made the trip from Alma to Fayetteville along U.S. 71, Bobby Hopper has a story of a near miss.

Hopper is a member of the state Highway and Transportation Commission. Shortly after being appointed to the commission, he was heading back to his home in Springdale from a meeting at Little Rock.

He exited off Interstate 40 and headed north on U.S. 71. Several miles past Alma, he reached the crest of a hill just as a motorist in the other lane veered his way.

Hopper ran off the road.

Luckily, he was in a four-wheel drive Ford Bronco.

"I went into a ditch and came right out," he says. "I wasn't hurt."

Still, the incident solidified Hopper's opinion that U.S. 71 is too dangerous a route to booming Washington and Benton counties.

The other option is Arkansas 23 and Arkansas 16 from Ozark to Fayetteville, the roller-coaster "Pig Trail" that makes U.S. 71 seem like the yellow-brick road.

It's not easy to reach northwest Arkansas, the home of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

By 1997, highway officials believe that will change. That's the tentative date for completion of the new U.S. 71. It will be a four-lane, divided highway covering a 42-mile section from the I-40 interchange at Alma to Fayetteville.

The new U.S. 71 will run parallel to and just west of the existing highway.

The estimated cost of the improved northwest Arkansas corridor is $220 million.

About half the work has been contracted out. Just more than half the distance is under construction.

"By early 1996, everything should be under contract and a couple of usable sections should be open to traffic," says Bill Stanton, director of public affairs for the state Highway and Transportation Department.

JPH's Touch

When the new U.S. 71 opens to traffic, it will be the culmination of an 18-year effort by Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, R-Ark., the ranking minority member on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee.

Because of Hammerschmidt's efforts, improvements to the existing highway have received up to 95 percent federal funding.

Hammerschmidt is one of the four men most responsible for steering a massive highway bill through Congress last year. Thanks to that bill, U.S. 71 -- which runs along the state's western border from the Missouri line to the Louisiana line -- will receive almost $900 million in federal funding.

"The hard part is the Alma-to-Fayetteville segment," Hammerschmidt says. "... There are always horror stories written about 71 and for good reason. You can't lay all those wrecks on that road. But on old Highway 71, it is dangerous to have a mix of heavy trucks, wet weather and automobiles.

"... We've always recognized that Highway 71 is a treacherous road. The Highway Department over time has made it a more user-friendly road. But for that traffic, we need a real interstate."

Hammerschmidt enacted legislation stating that if a road is upgraded to interstate standards within 12 years, it will become part of the federal interstate system.

"That allows |such roads~ to receive more maintenance money," Hammerschmidt says.

Hammerschmidt is serving his 13th term in the House. It is also his last. He is retiring at the end of the year and will be replaced by the winner of the race between Republican Tim Hutchinson of Bentonville and Democrat John Van Winkle of Fort Smith.

Since beginning his congressional tenure in January 1967, the Harrison native has been instrumental in bringing federal dollars to Arkansas for highways and airports.

Once completed, the new section of U.S. 71 will be known as the John Paul Hammerschmidt Highway.

You can bet he will be there for the long-awaited dedication.

"I've been to a lot of dedications for that highway already," Hammerschmidt says with a laugh. "Every time they finish a 10-mile segment, they do something."

The Tunnel

In early June, the Highway Commission decided to build the first highway tunnel in Arkansas. It will be on the new route for U.S. 71 about one mile north of the line dividing Washington and Crawford counties and 3.5 miles west of the existing highway.

The $24 million tunnel will be built through a hill under Banyard Road, which provides access to Chester in Crawford County.

Bob Walters, assistant chief engineer for design at the Highway Department, says the first option was excavation. There were a number of problems, not the least of which was aesthetics.

"If we were to cut through the mountain, we would be looking at a depth of about 200 feet," Walters says. "With the slope configuration, that would be a top width of a quarter mile. That's an enormous open gap at the top of the mountain."

Banyard Road is the only viable access to the Banyard community. A $3 million bridge would have been necessary above U.S. 71.

Walters points out another problem. What does one do with the 4 million cubic yards of earth excavated from the area? The cost of transporting and disposing of the dirt might have run into the millions of dollars.

"Add that to the $21 million for the open cut, and the costs are about a toss-up," Walters says. "... We want to prevent a visual scar."

The tunnel will be 1,400 feet long and 200 feet deep from the top of the mountain. The Sverdrup Corp., a St. Louis consulting firm, is working with Garver & Garver of Little Rock on the design of the tunnel.

The tunnel will be built at the conclusion of the construction period. Yet already there is speculation that contractors capable of doing such work are scarce. Some believe the Highway Department will go overseas to find the right contractor.

Who Has The Work?

Grading and structure work has been completed at the I-40 interchange at Alma and from the I-40 interchange to Gregory Chapel Road.

Grading and structure work is taking place from Woolsey to West Fork, from West Fork to Greenland, from Greenland to the Fayetteville bypass interchange and from Gregory Chapel Road to Frog Bayou.

Construction of the Frog Bayou Bridge recently was completed.

Those awarded contracts include:

* McGeorge Contracting Co. of Pine Bluff, $19.5 million.

* Sherwood Construction Co. of Catoosa, Okla., $16.5 million

* Duit Construction Co. of Edmond, Okla., $8.5 million.

* W.J. Menefee Construction Co. of Sedalia, Mo., $9.8 million.

* The Rust Co. of Belleville, Ill., $11 million.

* Jensen Construction Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, $14.1 million.

Jensen Construction was awarded the contract for the Frog Bayou Bridge, which is about five miles north of Alma. It is virtually inaccessible from existing U.S. 71.

McGeorge Contracting was awarded a $16.1 million contract to do grading and structure work on a 2.5-mile stretch from Woolsey to West Fork. It also has a $3.4 million contract for the segment from Gregory Chapel Road to Frog Bayou.

McGeorge is the only Arkansas firm with a major involvement in the project. However, bids will go out on the section from Mountainburg to Chester early next year. Highway Department officials anticipate awarding four contracts in 1993.

"By early 1994, the entire route will have some type of work going on, whether it's grading, surfacing or construction," Stanton says.

About $80 million of work is under contract. Work is under way from Alma to Mountainburg (south to north) and from the Fayetteville bypass to West Fork (north to south). That adds up to about 23 miles.

"It's pretty much on schedule," Stanton says.

What Of Old 71?

The existing U.S. 71 will remain open.

"It will remain in the highway system," says a Highway Department official. "... There has been some talk among interested parties that it be designated a parkway to retain its attractiveness to tourists.

"It will still be there, and it will still be a fairly heavily used highway. The new highway will benefit through traffic, particularly trucks."

Hammerschmidt hopes U.S. 71 will be designated a scenic highway. He's working on legislation that would do just that.

"We can then keep heavy truck traffic off that road," he says.

Otherwise, there is nothing to keep trucks from using the original U.S. 71, although one Highway Department official asks, "Why would they want to?"

The new highway will have a 65-mile-per-hour speed limit for 42 miles. For anyone who drives safely, it now takes more than an hour to get from Alma to Fayetteville.

Hopper remembers when he moved to Springdale in 1969, driving mile after mile on U.S. 71 or the infamous "Pig Trail." Those experiences stayed with him when he was appointed to the Highway Commission in January 1983. Hopper was appointed to another term in 1989.

"When I first went on the commission, we drove that road and drove that road," he says. "It is so dangerous ... So many trucks use it, people are speeding and the curves are sharp."

There once was a popular bumper sticker in northwest Arkansas that said, "Pray For Me -- I Drive U.S. 71."

Now, residents are praying that the new road will open on schedule.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Transportation in Arkansas
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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