LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The last four-lane segment of U.S. Highway 65 between Pine Bluff and Lake Village is open, completing a $200 million, 24-year project to widen about 80 miles of highway that runs through lush Delta farmland and has the promise of helping the region's economy.
The highway is still two lanes south of Lake Village through Eudora to the Louisiana line. But a project is under way to widen about 10 miles of U.S. 82 east from Lake Village, which leads to a new $366 million, four-lane bridge across the Mississippi River to Greenville, Miss.
Economic officials say the modernized highway will be an important trade route for transporting agricultural products.
Irvin Holderman, owner of Delta Supreme Fish Processors in Dumas, agrees.
"It definitely helps for getting in and out, without a doubt," Holderman said.
The business gets its catfish from farmers in Mississippi, using the bridge at Greenville. The company sells the processed fish to businesses in Little Rock, Jonesboro, Russellville and elsewhere, so it uses the entire length of the newly widened highway.
"We love it," he said.
Dumas, which has about 4,700 people, is roughly halfway between Lake Village and Pine Bluff, and about 45 miles separate Pine Bluff and Little Rock.
The last miles of the highway to be widened cross through Gould, a town of about 850 people, almost 80 percent of whom are black. Gould Mayor Earnest Nash said he wants to involve residents in economic projects.
"The city of Gould is in the perfect strategic economic location," Nash said. "We're 7.5 miles from the Arkansas River, with a port at Pendleton; we've got a railroad with a spur track and the highway completes that," Nash said. "We're in a good economic position to capitalize on that."
Nash said a meeting is set for early August for residents to brainstorm about how to start or expand businesses to take advantage of the widened route.
"That's the most important thing ... take people who are already invested in the community and help them start small businesses for the citizens and the people coming through," he said.
Gould has had trouble with crime and the mayor said it suffers from a run-down appearance.
"It gives our city more of a reason to clean our town up, as far as the crime ... and make our town look better," Nash said.
Another four-lane route is also being built south from Pine Bluff to Monticello. The road is still on its way to completion, though construction on a 10.5-mile segment of the 50-mile route is nearly finished.
When it's done, southeast Arkansas will have two four-lane, north-south highways, while southwest Arkansas continues to wait for its first one.
Interstate 49 runs from near the Missouri border to south of Fort Smith. People who want to travel between Texarkana, in the state's far southwest, and Fort Smith have to use U.S. Highway 71, a two-lane route that winds through the Ouachita Mountains.
Extending I-49 between the two cities has long been planned and boosters say it would jolt the regional economy. Louisiana has completed its work on I-49, which runs from Shreveport to Lafayette in that state. Plans call for it to eventually reach Kansas City, Mo.
At Mansfield, a sawmill town of about 1,100 people, Economic Development Coordinator Marion Mathis said building I-49 would lead to a boom.
"It would mean some extra businesses for our town at the interchange," Mathis said.
The town is situated in the Ouachita Mountains about 25 miles south of Fort Smith. Mathis, who's had his post for 17 years, said the biggest economic projects in that time were a sewage treatment plant and a new senior citizens center.
Having the highway would help the sawmill, he said.
"Timber coming from the south would be able to use the interstate," Mathis said.
A four-lane highway that's to eventually be designated as I-49 extends south from Texarkana and continues south to Doddridge, where a four-mile segment is under construction and will link to the I-49 at the Louisiana border. The four-lane also runs 20 miles north from Texarkana to Ashdown, with plans to build another 35 miles north to De Queen.
As for the rest, it hasn't been designed yet and the funding isn't in place, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Glenn Bolick said. The state is taking a pay-as-you-go approach, as it did with the U.S. 65 construction, Bolick said.
The U.S. 65 project is to be dedicated Thursday in two locations, Dumas and Pine Bluff. The work began in 1998 with a $3.9 million widening of the highway near Lake Village. The project was finally completed when a stretch of highway at Gould was recently finished.
In all, 19 separate road projects begun over the course of nearly a quarter-century picked away at the route, which runs through Dumas and McGehee and past the Varner and Cummins state prison units in Lincoln County and the Delta Regional Unit in Chicot County.
Holderman, who runs the catfish processing plant, said there's still work to be done on the highway. The U.S. 65 section in Dumas, which gets a lot of traffic from grain trucks and other farm-related vehicles, feels like a washboard in places, he said.
"I smiled when I received the invitation to the dedication," Holderman said. "They widened it, but it looks to me like they need to start redoing it already."
Follow Chuck Bartels at http://twitter.com/cbartelsLIT .