With an estimated cost of about $787 million, a public-private partnership on a tolled four-lane Interstate 49 extension from Alma to Fort Smith with a bridge over the Arkansas River has been deemed “not viable” by the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

Results of the I-49 Alternative Delivery Study, approved by the Arkansas Highway Commission in 2016, were presented Wednesday at the Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Policy Board meeting.

Andrew Brewer, assistant division engineer for ARDOT, said a tolled 14-mile extension was deemed “not viable” based on projected costs and revenue.

“The bottom line is assuming an optimal toll rate of 15 cents per mile … the gross revenue over a 40-year time period would be about $243 million,” Brewer told the MPO group of local municipal and business leaders “So basically, a huge net shortfall. The $243 million would not even pay for the operation and maintenance of the facility. It would not pay for the construction at all."

The study concluded, Brewer added, that tolling or a public-private partnership are “not viable at this time.”

About $1.2 billion so far has been spent on I-49 in Arkansas, including about $116 million on I-49 from U.S. 71 south of Fort Smith to Arkansas 22 near Barling, Brewer added. And "costs keeping going up," he said.

The estimated cost for a 14-mile, four-lane I-49 extension with a river bridge and no tolling system is about $776 million in 2018 dollars, the study added. A two-lane I-49 extensioin with a bridge was projected to be about $490 million. A toll road option would cost more because of upfront costs on technology and staffing, and attract less traffic than a non-tolled road, the study results added.

A four-lane, non-tolled interstate extension was projected to have between 14,000 and 17,000 vehicles a day in the year 2040 and a four-lane, tolled interstate extension was projected to have between 5,500 and 8,000 vehicles a day in 2040. If the extension was built by next year, the study showed a tolled 14-mile, four-lane I-49 over the river would carry only between 2,500 and 4,000 vehicles a day.

A two-lane, non-tolled extension was projected to cost about $490 million with $243 million in gross revenue over 40 years. A two-lane, tolled extension was priced at about $497 million with about $157 million in gross revenue over 40 years.

Arkansas Highway Commission member Keith Gibson noted at the beginning of the MPO meeting the state of Arkansas spends about $900 million annually on maintenance of the state’s nearly 16,000 miles of state highways with dedicated highway funding of about $430 million. A new highway bill that calls for a 2020 public vote to extend a sales tax that will generate about $300 million in new revenue.

“We have more highway miles than California,” Gibson said. “We have more highway miles than most states and less money than most states to take care of them.”

Gibson said after the meeting it would likely take a federal project to build an I-49 extension over the Arkansas River from Alma to Barling. There's no official word yet though on just how much the state could provide for the interstate extension. With so much on the line for funding, it's likely many decisions for state highway planning after 2023 will be determined next year in a statewide vote on the highway bill. The current state sales tax that supports highway funding pays for state highway projects until that year.