ALMA — A long-term highway project in western Arkansas took another step toward completion Wednesday, when a portion of the highway between Alma and Bella Vista officially was designated Interstate 49.

ALMA — A long-term highway project in western Arkansas took another step toward completion Wednesday, when a portion of the highway between Alma and Bella Vista officially was designated Interstate 49.

A large gathering of officials from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, representatives from national and local leaders, as well as local lawmakers celebrated the U.S. Department of Transportation’s official designation of Interstate 540 from Alma north to the Missouri border as Interstate 49.

The designation is a "significant event" for the project, said Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Ivy Owen.

"This generates the momentum we need to complete this," Owen said as he spoke of the growth of jobs, homes and new developments at Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith. Owen credited the highway as a major player in the developments.

According to AHTD Commissioner Dick Trammel, the 6.5-mile section of I-49 through Chaffee Crossing is near completion and, weather permitting, will be open by the end of the year.

Continued funding is key for the project, and although the Highway Trust Fund is diminishing and continued federal financing is in limbo, Trammel said completing the portion is good progress.

"This section is a gateway to northwest Arkansas and the development of I-49 is the future for the next generation," Trammel said. "Our mission depends on funding and future funding is questionable, but we are pleased the citizens are conscious and supportive of the needs."

Trammel outlined completed tasks and upcoming goals for the project.

I-49 represents 1,700 miles of interstate highway between New Orleans and Winnipeg, Canada, with about 315 miles within Arkansas. To date, Trammel said, about 80 percent of the project is complete, at a cost of more than $1.2 billion.

Trammel spoke of the recently completed portion of the Bella Vista Bypass, and said an eight-mile section near the southwestern Missouri state line and Bella Vista is under construction.

Trammel said the highway department continues to work with officials in Louisiana and Missouri to complete the connecting portions of the project, noting that construction of the section from Texarkana south to the Louisiana border is also nearly finished.

The longest unfinished section is the 200-mile stretch between Fort Smith and Texarkana, which Trammel estimated could take nearly $3 billion to complete.

Officials are pleased with the progress made on the project.

"This is another step in the continued progress on this project," said Gard Wayt, executive director of the I-49 International Coalition. "I-49 is all connected and is priority No. 1. With the work we have going on in Missouri and Louisiana and the activity we have here, this will be an important piece once it is completed."

The ceremony also launched the grassroots "I-49 Build the Bridge!" campaign.

Representatives of cities, counties, chambers of commerce and other public works entities across the western Arkansas region are banding together to show a concerted, cohesive push to secure funding for the 13-mile stretch of I-49 south of Alma that will connect at Chaffee Crossing, including a new bridge across the Arkansas River, according to a news release.

The campaign, along with the designation, is one officials hope will encourage leaders to continue to provide funding for the highway system.

"The highway department is dedicated to completing this project, as long as federal funding resumes," said Ed Thicksten, an Alma resident and former state representative. "We’re hopeful that the state and federal governments will be able to alleviate some of the pressures we have with that."

The campaign will complement the efforts of the I-49 International Coalition to complete the remaining portions of I-49 through Missouri and Arkansas.

Thicksten said other agencies supporting the cause include Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority, Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization and local governing bodies that would recognize the economic importance of the interstate for the region.

Thicksten said the highway department soon will begin a feasibility study to develop cost estimates to build the bridge.