Fayetteville to pay for bike and pedestrian path over I-49 at Wedington Drive

Residents review state improvement plans for the Wedington Drive-Interstate 49 in April 2014.

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

Pedestrians and cyclists in west Fayetteville will eventually have a safe way to cross Interstate 49, but it won’t come without a significant cost.

The City Council voted Tuesday to approve a cost-share agreement with the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department to pay $415,000 for a shared-use path on Wedington Drive over I-49 as part of the state’s upcoming interchange improvement project.

City and state officials have been at odds since 2014 when the Highway Department first unveiled its preliminary designs for the project.

The state’s plan called for one sidewalk on the north side of Wedington paired with on-street bike lanes that would put bicyclists in the middle of traffic with cars on either side. City officials immediately balked at the idea and requested the sidewalk and bike lanes be removed and replaced with a single, separated, shared-use side path.

Highway Department officials rejected the proposal because the city’s master plans showed bike lanes over freeways and expressways instead of side paths. According to a January 2015 staff memo, the Highway Department recommended the city update its master plans to include side paths if it wanted the idea put back on the table for consideration. The City Council immediately agreed, and in February 2015 made the recommended changes.

In a letter sent to Mayor Lioneld Jordan in March, the Highway Department stated it would accommodate the side path, but only if the city paid for it.

Jordan appealed to the department in a two-page letter sent in April, stating be believed the city had done everything it could to quickly address the state’s concerns using guidance and direction provided by the department itself. Safety, he said, was paramount in the project and it shouldn’t be the city’s responsibility to provide a safe way for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the interstate on a state highway.

Wedington is Arkansas 16 west of I-49 and Arkansas 112 Spur east of the bypass.

The state responded three months later, but not with good news for the city.

In a June 21 letter addressed to Jordan, department officials remained firm in their decision, stating that it considers side paths to be recreational enhancements, not a valid mode of transportation.

City Engineer Chris Brown said it’s possible the city could recoup some of the money if the project receives a future grant from the state’s Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). The program, which includes an 80 percent federal share and 20 percent local match, recently awarded Fayetteville $500,000 for lighting on Mud Creek and Scull Creek trails.

Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to foot the bill, but not without criticizing the state’s handling of the issue.

“I can’t help but be disappointed,” said Alderman Matthew Petty, “having been led down this path by the agency and then them relying on kind of a ‘policy is policy’ shrug to rebuff our request.”

Petty said negotiations with the department were not only frustrating and confusing, but also ironic.

“Even today,” he said, “they tell us that a side path is merely recreational, but at the same time they encourage us to apply to the ‘Transportation Alternatives Program’ for funding to pay for the side path.”

In its final rejection letter, the department references guidelines established by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Petty said those same documents include exceptions that can be made if engineers determine an alternate design is more safe.

“I think it’s clear when you have 20,000 people, approximately, who live west of the interstate – many that are students who attend classes east of the interstate or workers who work jobs east of the interstate – who, whether it’s out of necessity or preference, would like to walk or ride their bike, they absolutely deserve a safe way to do that,” Petty said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who studies this issue anywhere that thinks that the side path we’re proposing and asking for is less safe than the Highway Department’s proposal for bike lanes.”

Mayor Jordan agreed.

“As a mayor, my job is to make sure that the people stay safe in this city,” he said. “I will tell you that putting an overpass in and striping off a line where a bicyclist can practically clean the mirror on a car as they go by, I don’t feel, is safe.”

Jordan said although he was disappointed, it’s time to finally accept the Highway Department’s decision.

“Bless their hearts,” Jordan said. “We’ve spent a long time negotiating and this is the best they can do, so one way or the other we need to put that side path in.”

The money will come from the voter-approved Transportation Improvement Bond Program, but will impact one of the final remaining projects in the plan – the second phase of Zion Road improvements, which include bike lanes, sidewalks, and intersection widenings from Vantage Drive to Crossover Road.