Agency seeks 5-lane bypass for Jonesboro

Work would speed journey from I-555 up to Paragould


Photographs by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Map showing Commerce Dr. in Jonesboro, AR.

JONESBORO — Pauline Rickman will be happy when the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department widens Commerce Drive in eastern Jonesboro as part of an eastern bypass project and takes her front yard.

“I’ve got 4 acres,” said Rickman, who lives at 904 Commerce Drive, about a mile east of the airport. “I won’t have to mow all that.”

Others aren’t as happy with the proposal.

Lynn Turner owns a small Commerce Drive apartment unit where four elderly people live.

“I figure they’ll have to move out,” he said. “The plan shows the road will go right through it. I’ll worry about them.”

Robert Rees will lose parking spaces at his 250-apartment complex at 5930 Rees Road, which connects to Commerce Drive.

“I’d just as soon not see it,” Rees said. “We’ve been out here in the country. We like country living. All the doggone roads in Jonesboro have quite a bit of traffic. Commerce [Drive] will be a lot busier, too.”

Last week, highway officials unveiled a tentative plan that extends Commerce Drive from Interstate 555 north to U.S. 49, connecting the two main highways and providing an eastern bypass of the Craighead County city of 72,210.

Currently, motorists driving from Paragould and north of Jonesboro have to take Red Wolf Boulevard, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, to reach the interstate.

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“More than 40,000 vehicles pass Arkansas State University [on U.S. 49 and Red Wolf Boulevard] a day,” said Highway Department District 10 construction engineer Alan Walter of Paragould. “If we can build the bypass, we can relieve a lot of the congestion on Red Wolf.”

Plans call for widening Commerce Drive from two lanes to five lanes from its intersection with I-555, across Arkansas 18 and north to its intersection with Pacific Road. It will then extend across several fields before crossing Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Kathleen Street and connecting with U.S. 49 at Clinton School Road.

Highway officials said they expect about 10,000 to 15,000 motorists would use the 4.6-mile Commerce Drive bypass once it opens.

Brad Smithee, the Highway Department’s district engineer in Paragould, said he expects construction bids will be taken in 2020. It will cost about $10 million, he said.

“Right now, there is no direct way to get to I-555 from Paragould without using either a county road or Red Wolf Boulevard,” he said.

Much of Jonesboro’s growth is centered on the northeastern side of the town. The NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital opened on U.S. 49 in 2014, and a large financial institution is being built near the intersection of U.S. 49 and Arkansas 351. Plans also call for a large subdivision in the Hilltop area just west of the hospital.

Because of the growth there, traffic snarls occur daily.

“Routing some of the through-traffic away from there will help ease that,” Walter said.

Smithee said the Highway Department is in the first phase of planning the project. On Tuesday, officials unveiled the proposal at a public meeting at Nettleton High School, allowing residents to voice their opinions.

“We’re gathering a lot of information and putting it together,” Smithee said. “If we see we need to make some changes, we’ll look at them.”

Officials have looked at developing a bypass around Jonesboro’s eastern side for years. They’ve looked at routing traffic along Rogers Chapel Road from the interstate to U.S. 49, but financial support wasn’t available.

Commerce Drive became the obvious choice because of its proximity to Jonesboro’s industrial park and Arkansas 18, and the fact that the new roadway will cut through rural farmland and would not force many homeowners to move.

“We’ve discussed the lack between U.S. 49 and I-555 for several years,” said Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director Mark Young. “It’s an important part of the overall transportation network.”

Young said the rerouting of traffic on the eastern bypass should help retailers along Red Wolf Boulevard.

“The purpose of Commerce Drive is through-traffic,” he said. “This will alleviate the congestion on Red Wolf and will benefit businesses. This is significant. This is yet another improvement Jonesboro is making.”

Nelda Kizer, who owns a home across from Rickman at 907 Commerce Drive, said she has mixed emotions about the bypass proposal.

“It’ll take my whole house,” she said, pointing at a large map of the road that the Highway Department displayed at Nettleton High School.

She bought the house in 1991 and lived there until recently moving to Trumann.

“Do I rent it out before they have to tear it down?” she asked. “Do I leave it empty?”

Matt Elam, the owner of Silver Moon Trailer on Commerce Drive near its intersection with Arkansas 18, said he welcomes the bypass.

“We need all the traffic we can get,” he said. “If I have to give up part of my parking lot for more business, I’ll take it.”

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