VILONIA — There was fanfare, speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting Tuesday morning marking the dedication of the Highway 64 bypass around Vilonia. However, it will be a few more days before it is open to traffic.
On a cool morning, with a blue sky and the sun shining, more than 300 showed up to be a part of the event that was relatively short — about 30 minutes. But the roster of prominent speakers and dignitaries in attendance was long. Jim King, pastor of the First Assembly of God, gave the invocation with a prayer asking for safety and "traveling mercies."
Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, provided the welcome, speaking from a podium, set up in the middle of the roadway near the intersection of the bypass and Highway 107. He also delivered the news regarding the opening.
"We are still a few days from allowing traffic access, but it’s going to be worth the wait," he told the crowd.
He introduced other speakers including John Burkhalter of the Arkansas Highway Commission, who talked a bit about his role in the commission — helping to determine policy and funding. He also told the children he was glad to see them.
"One of the important things about today is all of you young people are here," he added.
He also said he anticipated the fourth graders, who were actually sitting down on the highway, would always remember being there for the ceremony.
Vilonia Mayor James Firestone and Faulkner County Judge Preston Scroggin also spoke. Firestone touched on the beginning of the project which, he said, started in the talking stages about 12 years ago. In the beginning, he said, it was not well received by all. Some, he said, feared it would hurt the downtown area.
"Now, we are the fastest growing city in Faulkner County and one of the fastest growing in the state," he said. "There have been several new businesses locating in Vilonia."
He received a round of applause from the children when he announced plans for a McDonald’s to soon break ground in the downtown area.
In turn, Scroggin remarked about the size of Faulkner County saying it is the fifth largest county in the state. He also expressed his appreciation to the Highway Department for their work on the bypass. He closed by addressing the students telling them "I hope you young folks will remember this day. It’s not often you get to come to such a historic occasion."
In conclusion, Bennett turned his attention again to the fourth-graders, telling them, "You are sitting on a highway that costs $42 million to build."
The ribbon was cut and swatches were given to many in attendance.
The audience included many Vilonia dignitaries, politicians and former politicians such as Red Sisson, the former mayor of Vilonia, who was in office when the project began and members of the Vilonia City Council. Also members of the Arkansas Highway Police and local law enforcement and fire department officials were on hand including Police Chief Brad McNew and Fire Chief Keith Hillman.
The Vilonia School District was well represented with the attendance of some fourth-grade students, band members, cheerleaders, the Primary Melodies, Frank Mitchell, superintendent of the Vilonia School District, Gary Lambert, assistant superintendent, as well as a handful of teachers and principals.
Also county dignitaries were there including members of the Faulkner County Quorum Court. Contractors were also there including Charlie Weaver of WEBCO. It was said his Vilonia-based company provided the "rock that went into the road."
Although he did not speak at the event, Glenn Bolick, spokesman for the Arkansas Highway Department, said opening to traffic is "very close." He predicted it could be as early as next week. Highway striping still needs to be done as well as a few other issues need to be dealt with before traffic will be allowed on it. Regarding the early dedication, he said, it is safer to do it before the actual opening. Asked about when the public will know they may begin driving on the roadway, he said, "it will just mysteriously open and you will see people begin driving on it."
The completion of the project is anticipated be close to the end of the year with tie-in work and the leveling and building up of entrances and exits.
Vilonia bypass at a glance:
• The new bypass is just over 10 miles and will become Highway 64. Highway 64 through Vilonia will become Highway 64B.
• About 14,000 vehicles, according to AHTD officials, travel on Highway 64 through Vilonia each day.
• The bypass was built in three phases. The new roadway costs $42 million.
• The first project was let in July 2007 to McGeorge Contracting Company for $7.2 million for the grading and structure work from South Church Road for 4.2 miles to Highway 64 East. That work was completed in 2009.
• The second project was let to Chancellor and Son in the summer 2008 for $8.9 million for the grading and structure work from South Church for 5.3 miles to Highway 64 West. That work was completed in early 2011.
• The final contract for the base and surfacing work was let in April 2010 to Interstate Highway Construction for $26 million; ARRA funding was used.
• It is anticipated traffic will be allowed on the new roadway within the next week.
• Traffic signals will operate at the western intersection of Highway 64 and 64B and also at Highway 64 and Highway 107.
• It is anticipated all work will be completed by the end of the year.
• Continuation of "major" widening from the Vilonia bypass east is considered for the 2013-2016 STIP.