Upgrade of U.S. 71 to I-49 coming to Missouri soon

Saturday, August 7, 2010
Map courtesy Missouri Department of Transportation Local projects along the U.S. 71 corridor are now funded, due to changes in the Arkansas budget.

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission has approved highway construction resulting in the upgrading of the U.S. 71 corridor between Kansas City and Joplin to interstate standards by the end of 2012, moving this portion of the project ahead on the calendar.

The original intent was to fund a four-lane bypass of Bella Vista, Ark., creating an interstate from Joplin to Fort Smith, Ark. However, recent correspondence from the Arkansas State Highway Commission indicates that due to funding shortfalls it intends to construct a two-lane Bella Vista bypass in phases over six years.

Since a two-lane bypass would not be compatible with interstate standards, the MHTC was compelled to shift its priorities on US 71.

"We need to capitalize on the opportunity to bring I-49 to Missouri between Kansas City and Joplin," said Rudy Farber, Commission Chairman, "but still work with Arkansas toward progress on the Bella Vista Bypass."

Promoters continue to tirelessly pursue the effort, which has now spanned more than two decades -- to make the I-49 upgrade a reality in hopes of paving a brighter future for towns along the corridor, like Nevada, and finally, the funding appears to be in place for the Vernon, Bates and Cass County portions of the project.

Vernon County, said MoDOT Southwest District Community Relations Manager Lori Marble, "is getting the lion's share" of the construction slated to begin in 2011, with projects in other areas along the corridor to take place before and after those in Vernon County.

The Missouri Department of Transportation expects five Vernon County projects, two south of Nevada and three north of Nevada to begin in 2011. Marble said bids on those projects, including an interchanges at route DD, Route E, Route M, Route D and TT, will be requested this fall, with work to begin on each of them some time next summer.

To the south of Vernon County, work in Barton County is under way, with some projects complete or nearing completion and two projects are slated to begin in 2011.

To the north, a new interchange at 52 should be completed some time in September, Marble estimated, and three additional projects in Cass County are slated to begin in 2012.

Conceptually, the I-49 effort has met with little strong resistance over the years. In some cases, residents near the highway worry about access if at-grade crossings are eliminated; and farmers worry about transporting equipment they can now move at slow speeds along U.S. 71.

Throughout the years, several public meetings about the upgrade have been conducted in the area, the most recent of which took place in Rich Hill in April, when it was determined an interchange would be constructed at D Highway and U.S. 71.

Most of the design work has been completed on these projects and Marble said they should be able to move ahead quickly now that funding is in place for them.

"Improving US 71 between I-435 in Kansas City and I-44 near Joplin enhances economic development opportunities and freight movement," said Missouri Department of Transportation Interim Director Kevin Keith. "We are excited about getting closer to an I-49 designation in Missouri."

Once improvements between Kansas City and Joplin are complete, any remaining funds will be used to begin construction of the Bella Vista Bypass in coordination with Arkansas.

To the south, large portions of the Interstate have been constructed in parts of Louisiana and Arkansas. Mary Hickerson, then Arkansas highway commission chairman, told reporters at a meeting in Rogers, Ark., in October 2007, "It just brings about economic development, there's no doubt about it."

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