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Here comes the trolley

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RIVER RAIL: New trolleys serve library area.
  • RIVER RAIL: New trolleys serve library area.
Between the crowds and the Secret Service closing off parking garages, getting anywhere near the Clinton library on opening day in a car may be next to impossible. Enter Little Rock’s newest public transit system, the wonderfully retro river-straddling trolley known as the River Rail. The newly operational streetcar’s route takes it within six blocks of the library, turning off Clinton Avenue onto Commerce Street on the eastern end of its seven-block Little Rock loop. (At press time, however, Keith Jones, head of Central Arkansas Transit, said it wasn’t clear whether security concerns would keep the trolley out of the River Market on the days leading up to the opening, so streetcar riders may have to add an extra couple of blocks to their hike.) The inaugural trolley trip Nov. 1 capped a decade of study, design and construction. The $19.6 million Phase 1, 80 percent of which was paid for with federal money, includes the Little Rock loop, a North Little Rock loop as far north as Seventh Street, and a connecting bar across the Main Street Bridge. It’s a route that was hammered out after much debate, including suggestions that the streetcar cross the river on the Junction Bridge instead. (Planners went with Main Street for economic development reasons, Jones said.) Crews have already started laying track for Phase 2, which will take the trolley down Third Street under Interstate 30 east to the library. That will go forward regardless of how the trolley does, Jones said, but there’s a Phase 3 that’s still in the amorphous stage and will depend more on what happens with Phases 1 and 2. “We’re looking at Main Street, Central High, the Capitol and the Rock Island Bridge,” he said. Speaking before the trolley began taking riders, Jones said he was happy with the public’s initial reaction to watching the streetcar go by on training runs. “It’s just intangible — it may not make any sense at all, but people love the streetcar,” he said. The streetcar isn’t expected to pay for itself, at least not through the 50-cent fare riders will pay, Jones said. Instead, officials in both cities and Pulaski County (all three are sharing equally the local cost of construction, as well as the cost of operations, estimated to be about $500,000 each year) see the trolley as a vehicle for economic development. A $60 million streetcar system in Portland, Ore., for instance, has seen more than $1 billion in real estate development along its route, Jones said. “That’s really where the economic return comes from,” he said. So what’s beyond Phase 3 in the realm of public transit in Pulaski County? There’s still hope in some circles for a light rail track to Little Rock National Airport, but the price tag — $50 million to $60 million — is a major stumbling block, as are the several sets of railroad tracks that would have to be crossed between downtown and the airport, Jones said.

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