Last month’s passage of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure package could help advance the planned Interstate 69 corridor, which includes 184 miles through south Arkansas, a little closer to fruition and maybe even fund a proposed crossing of the Mississippi River in Desha County.
The I-69 corridor entails 2,700 miles of NAFTA superhighway from Laredo, Texas, to Port Huron, Mich. Roughly 900 miles of it (interstate grade two- and four-lane passages) are open, including 42 miles in Arkansas.
Yet it will likely be a while before anyone drives I-69 from the Mexican border to Canada. The current total cost for the completed corridor is estimated to be between $35 billion and $40 billion.
According to the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT), cost estimates related to I-69 in Arkansas come in at $3.9 billion. That includes the state’s share of the planned $1.9 billion Great River Bridge over the Mississippi just north of Arkansas City in Desha County.
Although the feds now have a specified till with which to work, the wheels of bureaucracy move slowly, and there are thousands of potential landing plates across the country for pieces of that $1 trillion pie. However, two factors could expedite funding for the Arkansas portions of I-69 and the river crossing: the New Madrid Fault and specific components of the federal infrastructure bill that specify funds for bridges.
Arkansas State Highway Commission Chairman Robert Moore believes the Great River Bridge could help alleviate a potential national security issue. Currently, there are just two interstate crossings of the Mississippi between Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Vicksburg, Miss., both at Memphis.
Moore said the nation’s transportation network needs alternate interstate crossings, the closing of the I-40 bridge at Memphis earlier this year an example of the havoc native to a major bridge closing.
In a June letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, he cited the I-40 closing and stressed the prudence of an interstate crossing outside the New Madrid Fault Line, which has become one of the country’s most active seismic zones.
The New Madrid Seismic Zone extends roughly from the mid-Arkansas Delta, northward through east Tennessee and the Missouri bootheel into western Kentucky and southern Illinois. Little Rock, Memphis, Louisville and St. Louis are cities expected to be greatly impacted by a major quake along the New Madrid line.
And chances are, a big one is coming. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a 25 percent to 40 percent chance of an earthquake registering a magnitude of 6.0 or greater on the Richter scale along the New Madrid fault within the next 50 years. Furthermore, it estimates a 7 percent to 10 percent “probability” within that same time frame of a repeat of the earthquakes that rocked the upper Mississippi Delta in the winter of 1811-12 and gave the fault line its name.
That series of quakes, lasting from December 1811 to February 1812, peaked with a magnitude of 8.6 on Feb. 12, felt as far away as Connecticut. The first two quakes on Dec. 16 topped out at 8.2, each with epicenters in northeast Arkansas. Fortunately, the region was sparsely populated at the time; similar events today would almost certainly cause catastrophic damage.
“While the unfortunate situation on Interstate 40 across the Mississippi River brings to light the importance of our transportation system, it also points out the need for more interstate crossings of major waterways to protect our nation’s mobility and economy,” Moore wrote to Buttigieg. “While these circumstances make clear the need for a third crossing in the Memphis metropolitan area, a redundant crossing of the Mississippi River outside of the New Madrid seismic zone would seem prudent for the future.
“The proposed Interstate 69 crossing between Arkansas and Mississippi would provide this redundancy which would enhance the safety of our nation’s transportation system.”
Moore said the infrastructure package includes several discretionary grant programs through which Arkansas and Mississippi could jointly seek I-69 bridge funding. These include a $9 million bridge grant providing up to $700 million per year, and a $5 billion megaproject grant for projects that equal or exceed $500 million. Responding to Moore on behalf of Buttigieg, Federal Highway Administration Acting Administrator Stephanie Pollack cited the two grant programs as possibilities for I-69 bridge funding.
Moore sees a future I-69 bridge as an essential component to the integrity of the nation’s supply chain.
“For our national security, having a major interstate crossing across the Mississippi River outside the New Madrid Fault Zone should be a high priority, in my personal opinion,” he told Arkansas Money & Politics. “And that’s not pie in the sky; that’s factual. It’s factual information that needs to be considered. I-69 has unique importance to our national security.”
Other than actually cashing the check, all that’s left for Arkansas to do is begin work on the roughly 16-mile bridge approach from Highway 65 at McGehee in southeastern Arkansas. Unlike its counterpart in Mississippi, the Arkansas approach is shovel-ready, Moore said. The current estimated total cost of the bridge is $1.9 billion, but the assessed cost for Arkansas’ much longer portion is $1.3 billion.
Approaches on both sides of the bridge will connect Highway 65 at McGehee with Highway 1 in Benoit, Miss. This stretch represents “SIU 12” in the I-69 master plan. Like pieces of a puzzle, “SIUs” are sections of independent utility, designed to function independently of other sections, and the entire I-69 project includes 32 of them.
Elsewhere across the I-69 footprint in Arkansas, previously allocated federal funds will cover the cost of planned new construction. The state is scheduled to begin accepting bids in the summer for new construction on the first two lanes of what ultimately will be a 17-mile stretch of interstate from State Highway 278 in Monticello to U.S. Highway 65 in McGehee. This will tie into a previously completed two-lane stretch from Highway 425 to 278.
The new construction through south Arkansas is expected to deliver economic development opportunities to the region, specifically McGehee, Monticello and the “Golden Triangle” of El Dorado, Camden and Magnolia.
Desha County Judge Richard Tindall is optimistic that an I-69 corridor through southeast Arkansas will help shine a light on a region that’s been overlooked as industrial growth took root in other parts of the state. Rough estimates anticipate 24,000 vehicles a day through south Arkansas via I-69.
Tindall thinks this exposure could help more people discover regional treasures such as Delta Heritage Trail State Park. Its 84-mile trail from Lexa in Phillips County to Arkansas City in Desha County is now scheduled for completion by 2025 thanks to a $20 million matching grant from the Walton Family Foundation. In addition to opening up the area for tourism, the trail is expected to create roughly 600 new jobs.
“For a county that’s losing population, you could always use something that brings more people to the area,” he said. “I don’t see a negative. It’ll create new businesses and bring more people who otherwise wouldn’t have come.”
Dan Flowers, former director of what is now ARDOT and considered one of the state’s go-to authorities on all things highway-related, heads the nonprofit Arkansas I-69 Coalition, which advocates for corridor funding in the state. He believes I-69 through southern Arkansas would represent a potential economic boon.
“It would be a tremendous benefit to our state,” he said. “There are so many industries that need that interstate access. An interstate like this would attract a lot of economic development.”
In Arkansas, SIU 13 in the I-69 plan entails the portion of the future interstate running west from McGehee to U.S. Highway 167 at El Dorado — of which some work has been completed — and SIU 14 takes the project across the Louisiana border to Interstate 20 at Haughton.
SIU 28, meanwhile, will extend Interstate 530 at Pine Bluff south to connect with the future 69 at Wilmar, just west of Monticello. Technically, it’s currently open to traffic via Arkansas Highway 28.
The infrastructure bill covers funding for the federal fiscal years 2022-26. It allocates $3.6 billion for highway-related projects and $278 million for bridges in Arkansas with $296 million in federal earmarks already designated. Plus, Amendment 101 passed by voters last year will provide $150 million in discretionary funding for new construction related to 69. State officials expect to receive about $3.9 billion in all.
Two sections of the I-69 corridor — Indianapolis to Memphis and Laredo to Texarkana — have been deemed “corridors of national significance,” and state officials hope the Great River Bridge will be as well.
Of course, I-69 is competing with projects from across the country including others in Arkansas for federal infrastructure funding, and Moore is a pitch man for all those Arkansas projects. A planned extension of I-49 at Alma would take the interstate south across the Arkansas River into southern Sebastian County at Highway 22. Also on the drawing board is I-57 from Little Rock north to Missouri. Eventually, I-49 will run the length of the state’s western flank, connecting Kansas City to I-10 in south Louisiana.
And the only way to complete the I-49 corridor in Arkansas is through a new interstate crossing of the Arkansas River. Cost estimates for the 13.6 miles between I-40 and Highway 22 are $787 million, with the planned bridge just south of Alma accounting for nearly half of it.
As for I-69, the bridge over the Mississippi and another over the Ohio River towards the northern end of the corridor — for which construction has begun — are essential. Without them, there’s no corridor.
The bridge has been designed and right-of-way secured for the Arkansas approach for some time, Flowers said. “It all would require just a little bit of updating if we had the money today.”
Meanwhile, the waiting game continues. Without federal funding, the I-69 bridge will remain in the planning stage. “The bridge is the key to the corridor,” Moore said.
Infrastructure funds will have to be distributed to outstretched hands across the country at some point, and state officials think there’s at least a chance some could find their way to the Delta.
But Moore noted that the I-69 project in Arkansas now has one thing it hasn’t seen much of before — opportunity.