Bobby Hopper Reflects On Vision For Interstate & Namesake Tunnel

NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KFSM) -- The tunnel is part of the landscape now; a familiar part of the drive between Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley, so its impact on Arkansas and the impact of the man it is named after may not always be so obvious.

Let us start in the early 1980s. Bobby Hopper was standing somewhere in south Fayetteville in the area where Interstate 49 is now.

"I was standing out there, a guy drove by, I don't know who it was this time, he said 'Bobby, what in the world are you doing out here?'" Hopper said. "And I said 'well, you know, this would be a good place to build a highway,'"

The director of highways and transportation at the Arkansas Highway Commission at that time agreed with Hopper, who was appointed to the commission by then-Gov. Bill Clinton in 1983.

"He asked me 'Bobby, what's your priority? What do you think?'" Hopper recalled his conversation with Director Henry Gray. "And I said 'I'd love to build a highway starting in Alma and going up to Bella Vista.' And he says 'you know how many people you have for you to build that road?' And I said 'no Mr. Gray I don't,' and he says 'one and that's me.'"

And so, in 1999 on a dreary, drizzly day in January, the commission cut the ribbon on the final, but crucial piece of an interstate that has since played a major role in making Northwest Arkansas what it is today. The tunnel is now named after Hopper, who stepped off the commission six days after it was completed.

"I worked hard on it," Hopper said. "I was on the commission when we started the road and finished it."

The Bobby Hopper Tunnel is the first and so far the only highway tunnel in Arkansas and Hopper said there was no other way, but to tunnel into the Ozarks.

"We got a beautiful forest down there," he said. "And of course the commission didn't want to mess it all up."

Blasting, drilling and excavation removed the shale and sandstone to make room for the twin 1,595-foot long tunnels that would eventually allow cars and trucks to get through the mountain.

"I said 'we're ready, we're ready to have [the tunnel] open, but are y'all ready for it?' Because there's going to be 500,000 people here," Hopper said as he spoke about the several weeks leading up to the tunnel's grand opening.

And he was right, from Winslow, just north of the tunnel, to Bella Vista, there are now half a million people living in Northwest Arkansas and that number grows with each day.

"You go out there on the interstate [now] and you look at it, and there was nothing out there." Hopper reflected.

And had it not been for Hopper, maybe it would have stayed that way.

Hopper served on the Arkansas Highway Commission for 16 years.