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VIDEO: Arkansas's King Expressway Extension Ahead of Schedule, to Be Completed in 2022

Mon November 22, 2021 - Southeast Edition
Hot Springs Sentinel-Record

Construction of the $79 million, 5.8-mi. extension of the King Expressway from the U.S. Highway 70 East interchange to the junction of Arkansas Highway 5 and AR 7 is running ahead of schedule, the state Department of Transportation (ArDOT) has announced.

The state agency gave the Sentinel-Record a tour of the project in the second week of November, when it presented the progress that Little Rock-based McGeorge Contracting has made since the company began work in December 2019. The road builder was awarded the $75.1 million contract, but change orders have since increased the cost to $79 million, said ArDOT District 6 Engineer Deric Wyatt.

The $54.6 million bond issue Garland County voters approved in a June 2016 special election contributed $30 million to the project. In addition, the 0.625 percent countywide sales tax voters authorized is securing the project's debt.

A Flurry of Work Currently Taking Place

The project's original timeline called for an August 2022 completion, but Wyatt told the Sentinel-Record that the contractor is progressing ahead of schedule.

The first of the two-lift asphalt surface mix has already been applied to much of the roadway's length. Barring any significant weather delays this winter, the expressway addition could open to traffic earlier than expected, Wyatt said.

He noted the two-lane extension through the rugged backcountry east of Hot Springs National Park will cut travel time in half between Hot Springs and Hot Springs Village.

Offering a panorama of Hot Springs to the south and west, and remote ridges to the north and east, the imposing Promise Land Drive along the ridgeline crosses the southern end of the extension. ArDOT considered boring a tunnel through the ridge but decided in late 2017 that the cut-and-fill method was more cost-effective.

Wyatt said that excavation and blasting cleared a path through the ridge, which, according to an October 2019 geotechnical report, consists mostly of novaculite, a flinty rock also known as "Arkansas Stone." Rock removed from the ridge was used to build embankments on either side of the road.

"They took a drill rig, drilled down and put dynamite down there and blasted it out," he explained. "That busts the rock up, and they can haul it off."

The excavated material accounts for a large part of the more than 2 million cu. yds. of rock and dirt the transportation agency said the project has displaced. When selecting an alignment for a new road, Wyatt added, ArDOT wants minimal disturbance.

The department acquired more than 60 right-of-way pieces for the King Expressway extension project — designated earlier this year as a scenic highway — including a 200-ft. corridor wide enough to expand the road to four lanes.

"You have to look at utility conflicts, properties and environmental issues," he told the Hot Springs news source. "There's a lot that goes into picking an alignment. We try to pick a path of least resistance and the least amount of impact."

The Arkansas Department of Agriculture acquired approximately 300 acres near the extension's corridor in early 2020 from Deltic Timber, a $975,000 deal that will protect part of the area that captures and conveys water to thermal springs in the national park. A clause in the deed prohibits disturbance of the property other than what is required to preserve its health and sustainability.

A report approved by the Federal Highway Administration in April 2019 noted that 189 acres of the more than 23,000-acre recharge area is inside the King Expressway extension's corridor. The report said ArDOT would permanently protect 60 acres at an elevation of 660 ft. or higher.

That is the height geologists have said is the minimum elevation from which runoff can reach the park's thermal springs via ground fractures and faults in the recharge zone, the Sentinel-Record reported.

Runoff entering at a lower elevation does not have the hydraulic force to descend to depths of 7,000 ft., where it gets heated to 170 degrees before rising to the surface. Putting drainage or impermeable surfaces at or above the 660-ft. threshold blocks or diverts rainfall that would otherwise replenish the springs, experts said.

A Lot to Do Before the Road is Completed

During the Sentinel-Record tour of the road project, subcontractor Manhattan Road & Bridge headquartered in Tulsa, Okla., was working on piers for the Promise Land Drive overpass. Earlier excavation at the site had left a gap through the ridge.

"Within a month they'll have beams across the top of it," Wyatt explained.

Overpasses and access ramps also are going in at Covenant Trail Road, Mill Creek Road, Denise Lane and Quarry Mountain Road, he said.

The bridge being built over the Saline River tributary near the roundabout at the AR 5/AR 7 junction is the northernmost of the project's 10 bridges and overpasses, according to the geotechnical report.

The roundabout is part of the project to widen 4.17 mi. of Park Avenue from Gorge Road to the junction and is designed to be the nexus for the extension, AR 5 and AR 7 North.

Bowden Specialties Inc. in Russellville, was awarded the $18.5 million contract in September 2020.

According to a summary of ArDOT District 6 projects, the Park Avenue project is scheduled to be completed in late 2023, but Wyatt said the contract stipulates the roundabout will be completed by the time the expressway extension opens to traffic.

"The plan right now is to open the roundabout before Christmas," Wyatt told the Hot Springs newspaper.

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