Road work stirs tourism con­cerns in Hot Springs

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - NOEL OMAN

HOT SPRINGS — A $78.5 mil­lion project to widen a sec­tion of U.S. 70 be­tween In­ter­state 30 and Hot Springs will make it much eas­ier and safer to nav­i­gate, but it has Spa City boost­ers wor­ried about the ef­fect of the project’s nearly two-year con­struc­tion sched­ule on a city heav­ily de­pen­dent on tourism.

About 6 mil­lion vis­i­tors de­scend on the Gar­land County town that bills it­self as Amer­ica’s First Re­sort ev­ery year. They gen­er­ate an an­nual eco­nomic im­pact of nearly $750 mil­lion and sup­port 7,500 jobs with an an­nual pay­roll of $127.5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study com­mis­sioned by the Hot Springs Ad­ver­tis­ing and Pro­mo­tion Com­mis­sion.

The gate­way to Hot Springs is the pic­turesque seg­ment of U.S. 70 that stretches 18 miles be­tween the town of 35,000 and I-30.

Pri­mar­ily two lanes with some pass­ing lanes that carry be­tween 15,000 and 17,500 ve­hi­cles daily, the road is be­ing widened to five lanes. The

project also will re­build four bridges, straighten curves and flat­ten hills to ease safety con­cerns that arose in 2015 amid sev­eral deadly traf­fic crashes on the high­way.

Mo­torists who used the route to ven­ture to Hot Springs on Fri­day en­coun­tered a sec­tion of the high­way that was down to a sin­gle lane, which re­quired flag­gers on ei­ther end to hold up traf­fic on one end to al­low traf­fic on the other end to pass. The choke point costs mo­torists an ex­tra 15 min­utes.

“For the most part, there is still go­ing to be one lane open in each di­rec­tion,” said Scott Ben­nett, the direc­tor of the Arkansas High­way and Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment. “We’ll try to keep the pass­ing lanes open. But days like to­day, there are times we are go­ing to have to have a lane closure. There will be one lane and it will take a lit­tle ex­tra time to get through here.”

Ben­nett spoke at a news con­fer­ence in which he and other high­way of­fi­cials were joined by Hot Springs lead­ers to re­mind vis­i­tors of the project so they aren’t sur­prised and that there are other op­tions to reach­ing the city. The al­ter­na­tives in­clude U.S. 270 and Arkansas 5.

“If you de­pend on out­side traf­fic for your busi­ness, I don’t blame them for be­ing con­cerned,” said Tom Schueck, the vice chair­man of the Arkansas High­way Com­mis­sion. “But be­tween the traf­fic han­dling by the con­trac­tor and 270 and High­way 5, I think there are plenty of high­ways to get into Hot Springs.”

The ex­ec­u­tives who spoke at the news con­fer­ence said they wel­comed the project and what it would mean to the re­gion once it is fin­ished.

“We’re ex­cited to have this project on Route 70,” said Wayne Smith, as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager at Oak­lawn Park, which is in the midst of its an­nual live horse-rac­ing meet. “We know it is in­con­ve­nient in some cases, but Exit 98 off I-30 will get you right to us.”

Diane LaFol­lette, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mid-Amer­ica Science Mu­seum, said she has seen no de­cline in busi­ness.

“We haven’t had any com­plaints,” she said. “In fact, we’re busier now than were at this time last year.”

The project be­gan sev­eral weeks ago, and so far Smith and oth­ers haven’t de­tected any im­pact on busi­ness, but with spring break and the sum­mer sea­son ap­proach­ing, Hot Springs will start to see a pickup in vis­i­tors.

“This [news] con­fer­ence to­day was to hope­fully pre­empt any kind of im­pact on busi­ness,” said Jim Fram, the pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Greater Hot Springs Cham­ber of Com­merce. “We wanted to as­sure peo­ple there are other routes in here. This is a pre-emp­tive strike to pre­vent peo­ple from get­ting hung up in con­struc­tion.

“The mes­sage is, ‘ Hot Springs is open for busi­ness,’” he said.

Still, the lead­ers wanted to make sure peo­ple were aware of the project and that it doesn’t serve as a de­ter­rent to go to Hot Springs, which is home to a na­tional park, two lakes and other at­trac­tions and events. The city will play host to the state high school bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment and the an­nual World’s Short­est St. Pa­trick’s Day Pa­rade next month.

“It’s very im­por­tant we get the word out,” said Steve Hon­ey­cutt, gen­eral man­ager of Magic Springs theme and water park, which doesn’t open for the sea­son un­til April 8.

State high­way of­fi­cials said the 18-mile project will see an in­creased law en­force­ment pres­ence through­out con­struc­tion.

The work in­volves mostly clear­ing the right of way of trees and other growth. Widen­ing will be­gin in the east and ad­vance west in three 3-mile sec­tions, Ben­nett said. Ex­ist­ing pave­ment also will be re­placed.

The project is part of his agency’s $1.8 bil­lion Con­nect­ing Arkansas Pro­gram, which con­sists of about 40 projects cov­er­ing 200 miles on the state high­way sys­tem and fo­cuses on projects of re­gional sig­nif­i­cance. It is fi­nanced mainly with half-per­cent statewide sales tax in place for 10 years that vot­ers ap­proved in 2012.

The state said it hopes the project ac­com­mo­dates fu­ture traf­fic growth.

“In the end, it’s go­ing to make for a much safer and much more ef­fi­cient travel be­tween In­ter­state 30 and Hot Springs,” Ben­nett said.

SOURCE: Arkansas High­way and Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette

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