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A project to widen a 5.8-mile section of U.S. 82 is the first major highway improvement in Columbia County in more than 50 years, according to Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann.

"This project contributes to the four-lane widening of Highway 82 between El Dorado and Texarkana," Arkansas Department of Transportation said. "When complete, the additional lanes will enhance the transportation connection between the cities, increase capacity and improve traveler safety." That section is about 88 miles long. U.S. 82 is an important east-west artery across south Arkansas, stretching from Texarkana in the west to south of Lake Village in the east.

A 5-mile section in El Dorado has been widened and serves as a southern bypass to the Union County seat. A small section of the highway also has been widened east of Magnolia as well as another section through the Lafayette County town of Lewisville.

The work was among 35 road construction projects on which the department opened low bids totaling $98.8 million.

The low bid for the U.S. 82 project — $34.2 million — represented more than a third of the total low bids opened.

The project will widen to four lanes from two, a section of U.S. 82 from U.S. 79 west to Columbia County Road 27 on the north side of the city, extending into the county. Another section project that the state has planned will widen U.S. 82 from Columbia County Road 27 to U.S. 98.

"It's a big plus for us," Vann said. "We're excited.

The section of U.S. 82 scheduled to be widened borders the north side of the Southern Arkansas University campus, which has an enrollment of about 4,000 students.

"SAU is the only state university not connected by a four-lane highway," Vann said.

The project will help make the school more convenient for students, he said.

"We'd love to see the day that (a four-lane) 82 goes from Texas to Mississippi," Vann said.

U.S. 82 in Arkansas, not including business routes or spurs, totals 184.88 miles between Texas and Mississippi, according to Danny Straessle, the department spokesman. Of that total, 22.72 miles is four lanes, he said.

He said it was the biggest project since construction of what is locally known as the U.S. 79 bypass, which was completed in 1969.

The low bid was submitted by JB James Construction LLC of Baton Rouge. The company's bid bested offers by three others. Those bids ranged from $34.7 million to $39 million.

State highway officials have been focusing on widening U.S. 82 on the west side of the state as part of its $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program, a 10-year road construction program financed by a temporary half-percent statewide sales tax that voters approved in 2012. The tax is scheduled to expire in 2023.

The project comes 10 years after the state opened the $341 million U.S. 82 bridge over the Mississippi River at Lake Village.

The route carries about 7,100 vehicles daily, according to the latest department data.

(This story appeared Jan. 9 in the Arkansas Democrate-Gazette blog.)

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