“The goal is to route through traffic around the city of Hot Springs to allow quicker connections to and from Hot Springs Village and other areas to the north,” says Mark Headley, District Engineer with the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT).
The new alignment in eastern Garland County, currently called Hwy 7 during construction, will connect U.S. 70 and Hwy 5 (Park Avenue) in Fountain Lake to Hot Springs Village and farther north. Currently, traffic to the north must pass through the resort town of Hot Springs or Hot Springs National Park. When the road is complete, it will become Hwy 5.
The road winds through steep, tree-lined terrain in the Ouachita Mountains. State Rep. Richard McGrew (R) was the lead sponsor of a bill, now Act 675 of 2021, to make the new Hot Springs Bypass Extension a scenic highway. The road is also known as the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway.
Population has increased in the county, leading to congestion on local roads. About 7,000 vehicles drive on the existing Hwy 7 daily into Hot Springs, with that number expected to increase to 9,700 by 2039. The department expects the new bypass will reduce traffic in the Hot Springs Central Business District.
“This project was specifically listed as one of the projects that would be funded by the sales tax increase,” Headley says. “The county did the same thing that ARDOT has found to be successful when asking the voters for more funding – tell them exactly what you will spend it on.”
The city of Hot Springs worked with the county to help get the tax increase passed by voters, Headley adds. Hot Springs Mayor Pat McCabe told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that extension of the bypass was a top public safety priority.
Additionally, the DOT received a $20 million federal BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grant. The remaining $22 million was split 80/20 between the federal government and the state DOT.
ARDOT designed the project in house. The Department selected the route to minimize the environmental impacts and the number of homes that would be lost to the freeway. There were no wetlands or major environmental concerns. While the area is a recharge area for the Hot Springs, it was determined the new road would not negatively affect the springs.
Although the department considered widening Hwy 7 through the city, a number of historic structures and the national park eliminated that solution to managing the increased traffic.
The current project will build two 12-foot-wide travel lanes, one in each direction with no median, with an 8-foot-wide shoulder. However, the department acquired right of way to accommodate a future widening of the road to four lanes.
“When the traffic volume dictates we need to build the other section, we can do more excavation and build the other two lanes,” Headley explains.
At the northern terminus of the bypass where Highways 5 and 7 meet, ARDOT has let a separate $18.5 million contract to Bowden Specialties of Dardanelle, Arkansas, to build a roundabout and widen a 4-mile section of Park Avenue, scheduled for completion in 2023.
Construction began on December 26, 2019. The contractor started in the middle of the new road way in a location near the Mill Creek Road interchange, and is building north and south from the origin with different crews for each.
“McGeorge is very good at dirt moving,” Headley says. ‘They have a lot of experience with dirt moving and rock excavation and blasting equipment. They are the biggest in the state.”
The project includes five steel-girder bridges, mostly over roads, including over Hwy 7, and one over a river tributary, with no marine operation; three large concrete boxed culverts, with 20-foot bridge-lengths; and numerous smaller culverts and pipe structures for drainage. The water will flow into the Ouachita River watershed.
“There is quite a lot of drainage in this area, because of the terrain, there’s water running everywhere,” Headley says.
Work has taken place in the winter, particularly the bridge construction.
Headley reports the contractor is using GPS for grade control, drones to document progress, and LiDAR. Additionally, ARDOT is using LiDAR, GPS, and total stations for surveying.
Crews are moving more than 2 million cubic yards of dirt. The site is heavily forested.
“There’s a lot of dirt being moved and rock being blasted,” Headley says. “Because of the rugged and hilly terrain, we had to delay some geotechnical calculations, because we could not get the drill rig in.”
At Promise Land Road, ARDOT eliminated a planned intersection after residents voiced concerns and instead paved a section of a private road to allow access by residents of that rural community.
The project remains on track to be complete in 2022. “I’m excited about this new roadway,” Headley says. “The views will be amazing.”
Photos courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Transportation