Interstate 49 (often called “I-49”) is a U.S. interstate highway with two different segments in western Arkansas. The best-known section of Interstate 49 is in northwestern Arkansas, where a roughly eighty-five-mile segment stretches from Interstate 40 to the Missouri border, passing through Fayetteville (Washington County) and the Bentonville (Benton County) corridor. A second segment of Interstate 49 extends forty-two miles from the Louisiana border to Texarkana (Miller County). Both sections will eventually be united by a third segment of I-49 in Arkansas that will cut through the Ouachita Mountains. Ultimately, a completed Interstate 49 will stretch continuously from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Kansas City, Missouri.
While Interstate 49 was not included in the original 1950s Interstate Highway plan, leaders in several states began campaigning for the route as early as the 1970s. Many promotional materials were created using the slogan “Build the Road.” In 1991, the broad path for a future Interstate 49 was designated as a high-priority corridor by the U.S. Congress.
The northwestern Arkansas section received attention first. For decades, travel from Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Fayetteville involved a drive north on U.S. Highway 71 from Alma (Crawford County). However, Highway 71’s crooked route through the Ozark Mountains was dangerous. Large roadside signs on the highway kept a tally of recent car accident deaths. By the 1990s, the Highway 71 Relocation Project was developed to connect northwestern Arkansas to the rest of the state using safer, multilane roads.
The first completed stretch of future Interstate 49 in Arkansas was a ten-mile portion connecting Alma to Mountainburg (Crawford County) in 1995. Due to its Ozark topography, Interstate 49 contains several bridges and passes through the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, the only highway tunnel in Arkansas. In January 1999, the future Interstate 49 officially opened, linking Interstate 40 with Fayetteville. From Fayetteville, the interstate joined an existing interstate-quality bypass near Fayetteville, Springdale (Washington and Benton Counties), Rogers (Benton County), and Bentonville, before converting into a non-interstate road south of Bella Vista (Benton County).
For many years, this northwestern Arkansas section was not called Interstate 49, but rather Interstate 540, due to complex interstate highway naming rules. In 2014, Interstate 540 was officially renamed Interstate 49, though the interstate-level quality still ended near Bella Vista. As the Missouri portions of Interstate 49 were completed, the non-interstate segment through Bella Vista became a traffic headache. A bypass west of Bella Vista opened in October 2021, finally linking continuous Interstate 49 travel from the Kansas City metropolitan area to Interstate 40 in Arkansas.
Today, I-49 is the primary transportation route for northwestern Arkansas. In 2018, an interchange with Arkansas Highway 612 was completed, laying the groundwork for future highway links to the Northwest Arkansas National Airport. By 2020, Interstate 49 had expanded to accommodate six lanes of traffic (three lanes each way) between Exit 62 in Fayetteville and Exit 88 in Bentonville.
The shorter southwestern Arkansas portion of I-49 aimed to connect Texarkana to Louisiana. Construction began starting at the existing eastern Texarkana bypass in 2002 and slowly progressed southward toward Doddridge (Miller County). During this time, completed portions of the road were temporarily signed as Arkansas State Highway 49. In November 2014, the route finally crossed the Louisiana border as Interstate 49, heading toward Shreveport.
It will be years or even decades before all I-49 construction is complete in western Arkansas. Given limited funding, the need for environmental studies, and the obstacle of the Ouachita Mountains, specific highway paths may change. Nevertheless, a proposed route for future I-49 between Texarkana and Alma had begun to take shape by 2023. From the U.S. Highway 71 intersection near Texarkana, I-49 will briefly enter Texas before returning to Arkansas south of Ashdown (Little River County). Following U.S. Highway 71 closely, I-49 might move north through the Ouachitas, passing east of De Queen (Sevier County), east of Mena (Polk County), west of Waldron (Scott County), and west of Greenwood (Sebastian County).
From there, I-49 will join an existing six-mile stretch near the Chaffee Crossing area around Fort Smith (Sebastian County), which opened in 2015 between Arkansas State Highway 255 and Arkansas State Highway 22. The next portion of I-49 to be built will extend north from Highway 22, cross the Arkansas River, and connect with the northwestern Arkansas I-49 segment at Alma.
Interstate highways are measured from south to north (or west to east) in each U.S. state. Because of the two different sections of I-49, Arkansas mile markers are complicated. One Exit 29 exists at Mountainburg, while another Exit 29 exists in Texarkana. Once Interstate 49 is fully connected in western Arkansas, exits on the northwestern section will be renumbered.
For additional information:
“Arkansas Road Inventory.” Arkansas Department of Transportation, GIS Database. Online at https://gis.arkansas.gov/product/arkansas-road-inventory/ (accessed August 29, 2023).
Historical Review, Volume Two: Arkansas State Highway Commission and Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, 1913–2003. Little Rock: Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, 2004.
“Interactive ADT Web App: Average Daily Traffic.” Arkansas Department of Transportation. https://gis.ardot.gov/portal/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=7c81a313f4174b99b2a01713c328bb7a (accessed August 29, 2023).
Interstate 49 International Coalition. http://www.interstate49.org/ (accessed August 29, 2023).
McLaren, Christie. Arkansas Highway History and Architecture, 1910–1965. Little Rock: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 1999.
Nelson, Rex. “Two-Lane Travel—What’s Become of Highway 71?” Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 3, 2018. https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2018/jun/03/two-lane-travel-20180603/ (accessed August 29, 2023).
“NWARPC 2045 Metropolitan Transportation Plan: 30+ Years in the Making: Interstate 49 from Ft. Smith to Kansas City.” Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. https://www.nwarpc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/8.Build-Grant-Poster.pdf (accessed August 29, 2023).
Tilley, Michael. “I-49 Alma-Fort Smith Route Might Be Complete by End of the Decade.” Talk Business & Politics, January 10, 2022. https://talkbusiness.net/2022/01/i-49-alma-fort-smith-route-might-be-complete-by-end-of-the-decade/ (accessed August 29, 2023).
Arkansas Tech University
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