Three streets in Searcy have seen a total traffic reduction of about 6,000 vehicles per day since the Arkansas Highway 13 bypass was completed in March 2018, according to Arkansas Department of Transportation Deputy Director Randy Ort.

“I think you are seeing some real impacts from that now,” Ort said. “Before you had the northern part of the bypass you had a local road that had about 2,400 vehicles a day and since the bypass has been built you are looking at about 7,000 vehicles up there on the northern part of the bypass, so it really made a big difference.”

Ort was speaking Monday, in the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce’s “In the Know” virtual election series for its members, on the state of transportation and Issue 1, which would make permanent a half-cent state sales and use tax that helps support state road work. The issue will be on the general election ballot Nov. 3.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Daily Citizen also plans to publish Ort’s comments about the tax.)

However, before Ort discussed the tax, chamber President Buck Layne asked him to comment on the Highway 13 project, which cost $50 million and extended Highway 13 to Arkansas Highway 36, connected U.S. Highway 67/167 to Arkansas Highway 16, then connected Highways 36 and 16 for a loop around the city.

Ort, who is also the department chief operating officer, said it was a great day when the entire Highway 13 bypass was opened and it has made a big difference in relieving some of the city’s streets.

Main Street, south of Race Avenue, has seen a reduction of traffic volumes by about 1,000 vehicles a day, he said, but “probably the biggest benefactor would be Race Street.”

He said on Race Avenue, where “traffic volumes used to be about 13,000” has seen “about a 3,000 vehicle per day reduction from what you used to see.”

“And, of course, a lot of those are people coming from the Memphis area and headed up to the lake for the weekend, boats and trailers and things like that,” Ort said. “When you get vehicles like that off of what are basically local streets, it can really help the safety and mobility in the area.”

Concerning Beebe-Capps Expressway, Ort said, the department is seeing a reduction of about 2,000 vehicles per day.

He said hopefully no businesses have been hurt by the diversions in traffic, but “by the same token, when you get some of that through traffic out of town, it can really help those local businesses, drug stores, grocery stores, things of that nature who rely on people who live in the area.”

“It makes it much safer, a much better environment,” he said. “I think we have seen some great benefits from opening the bypass.”

Ort also discussed a current project going on in White County, the clearing of trees and brush on rights of way at U.S. 67/167 entrances and exits.

He said any time the department starts clearing vegetation, like it did at the Main Street exit, it is going to hear about it.

“Sometimes people love it and sometimes people hate it,” Ort said. “There are people who want everything to be all natural; they don’t want us to cut any trees, grass, wildflowers. Oh my goodness ... if we cut the wildflowers before the seeds set, we’re evil. But some people want it to look like a golf course; they want the well-manicured look; they want everything to look perfect like your front yard, so it’s hard to find that right balance.

“It starts crossing the line when you start getting vegetation too close to the roadway or you start getting the tree roots from that vegetation ... under the shoulders of that road or under the travel lanes. That’s where we have to draw the line.”

What is going on now with the vegetation control in the county, Ort said, is just sort of the tip of the iceberg. From Beebe to Newport is getting the vegetation work done, with the exception of Exit 44 in Searcy. “There is very little we can do there [because of legal issues] except keep everything trimmed back.”

The vegetation project and a pavement and bridge rehabilitation project are totaling about $40 million, Ort said, and “is dramatically improving ride quality all the way from the Lonoke County line up to Newport.”

“We ask people to be patient; that [the work] is probably not going to be complete until the spring of 2022. We still have another year and a half to go on that but I think they will be very pleased with the results. We are going to have a much improved ride quality on that section of U.S. Highway 67.”

The chamber will hold a second “In the Know” program Wednesday featuring candidates for Searcy City Council.

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