A four-lane U.S. 67 from Festus to Dallas is an effort that has been decades in the making, stymied in recent times by a 50-mile stretch of road in northern Arkansas. Recently, however, that four-lane idea took a major step toward reality.
Members of the Highway 67 Coalition met in Walnut Ridge, Ark., where a compromise was announced on the final location of that last 50-mile stretch needed to make a four-lane Highway 67 corridor a reality.
The mayor and judges from Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties, as well as the mayor of Walnut Ridge, Pocahontas and several other nearby cities, have come to a consensus on what they will jointly advocate for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to the government.
Farmington Chamber of Commerce CEO Doug McDermott was among local representatives present at the public announcement of the compromise.
“We have come a long way,” he said. “You look at what Poplar Bluff did with their city investment into improving their stretch and what MoDOT has done south of Farmington to get it to four lanes and you see a lot of progress has been made, but as you know over the number of years there were some smaller communities in northern Arkansas that couldn’t come to terms on where the road should come through for very logical reasons ... for fear that their community would be bypassed and that might hurt their economy. So this announcement is very exciting.”
The meeting took place Oct. 25 in Walnut Ridge. Mayor Don House was among those speaking at the event. McDermott said House told the gathered crowd that roads will determine the destiny of their communities and commerce for generations to come. “By coming together and speaking as one voice we hope to grow the region,” House said.
McDermott praised the foresight of the officials involved. “Towns divided will never get what they need,” he said, “But by coming together and saying, ‘You know what, we will negotiate and we will compromise on one joint solution,’ that means we are a lot closer to getting this done.”
Now that a compromise has been reached, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe and the Arkansas Highway Commission will be getting a proposal from the group calling for a multi-lane highway that will follow the existing two-lane route with bypasses around Pocahontas and Corning.
The letter of agreement should help the communities negotiate for the necessary funding as budgets are prepared in coming years, McDermott said. “They can say, ‘You know what, we need to do this, there is consensus for us to finish this 50-mile stretch to four lanes.’”
The Highway 67 Corporation was authorized by Missouri’s Transportation Commission in 2004. It was created after members of the Highway 67 Corridor Coalition went to the state capitol to make the case for expanding 67 to four lanes to at least the Arkansas line.
The corporation itself was initiated by Poplar Bluff, as well as business and civic leaders in that community.
They prepared a study estimating the costs of the improvement at between $85 and $120 million. MoDOT at the time estimated the costs at $140 million.
Even before the coalition went to the capitol, however, the idea of a four-lane US 67 corridor had already been on the drawing boards. MoDOT had made preliminary plans for U.S. 67 to meet interstate standards back in the 90s. However, the estimated cost of doing that was $500 million.
The corporation proposed an incremental approach instead. Build the additional two lanes and worry about meeting interstate standards later if and when traffic demanded it.
In March of 2005, Kevin Keith, then chief engineer of MoDOT, signed a preliminary three-page funding agreement on behalf of the state with the U.S. 67 corporation to proceed with the project. That agreement was contingent on the passage of a one-half cent sales tax by Poplar Bluff voters in an April election.
The Poplar Bluff measure was to provide 50 percent of the construction costs for the stretch of highway in their vicinity.
Under the agreement, the state and the corporation would equally share the estimated $120 million construction costs. Any appropriations from Congress or other entities would defray those shared costs.
Though it was an unusual funding mechanism at the time, it was not the first time a special corporation helped finance a highway project in Missouri. A similar corporation was created to help finance the upgrade of U.S. 63 from Macon to Kirksville.
MoDOT has also often been willing to move projects up on the construction schedule if local funding is offered. For example, Farmington put up $1 million to expedite the construction of the Maple Street interchange on U.S. 67.