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New bridge creates river trail loop

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Do you know how long it takes a city to build one trail?

Longer than you might think. It’s taken nearly 30 years for the concept of a multipurpose urban trail to make its way out of the imaginations of a handful of city leaders and onto the pavement.

The Arkansas River Trail is a work in progress — new features seem to crop up every few months — that has taken a host of philanthropists, organizers, city departments and planners to bring full circle, literally.

The opening of the Big Dam Bridge pedestrian crossing over the Murray Lock and Dam created a 14-mile bike/hike loop. But much more work must be done for the River Trail to be complete.

It will be worth the wait, trail planners say.

When complete, the River Trail will be nearly 25 miles long, not just connecting downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock but providing a route to Pinnacle Mountain State Park and to the Ouachita Wilderness Trail (which is itself around 225 miles long).

“Everything that people thought in the early days [when plans for the trail were being discussed] was that trails belonged only in the woods, that they belonged in nature,” said Terry Eastin, who, a few years ago, pulled together a coalition of some 30 organizations in support of the trail and has served as the project’s chief organizer ever since. But the needs of busy people to live a healthier lifestyle in the city changed that.

Not only does the River Trail offer an alternative for commuters (imagine biking or rollerblading to work instead of suffering through rush-hour traffic), it also makes it more convenient for busy folks to squeeze in an hour or so of exercise every day without having to travel far. Who wouldn’t rather take a riverfront jog than trudge along on a treadmill? According to Eastin, more than she had imagined.

“If you go down to Murray Park around 5 p.m., you just about have to wear blinkers on your backside,” she joked. “That’s how popular it is. It really is an incredible asset for the city … kind of like a ribbon that ties together all these wonderful things.”

The “wonderful things” that Eastin refers to include the restaurants, shops, and park areas along the trail’s route, including a direct connection to the fast-growing corridor at Heifer International and the Clinton Presidential Library. This addition should be completed, said Assistant Parks Director Mark Webre, within the next year; he hopes the Clinton Foundation will make progress on renovating the Rock Island Bridge to provide the easternmost link in the loop.

Several other unfinished portions of the trail are going to be tackled in the coming years, Webre said. “This isn’t the end of our [the city’s] quest to build trails in Central Arkansas.”

A laundry list, so to speak, of the patches of the River Trail that await construction or additions: the stretch between the Riverdale district and the Alltel campus; the east side of Riverfront Drive near Cajun’s Wharf and the Junior Deputy Ballpark; the trail around the Episcopal Collegiate School and through the Union Pacific Railroad property; a link into the “Medical Mile” in Riverfront Park; and access across the Little Maumelle River to Two Rivers Park and Pinnacle State Park.

The path along the Junior Deputy Ballpark is the main project, Webre said. It’s being readied for the Little Rock Marathon in March.

“That will be an important addition for us,” said Gina Pharis, coordinator of the annual event, “because it will take us off of Cantrell Road … so we won’t be backing up traffic there. … It will be a nice change for the runners, too.”

Webre hopes the entire path will eventually have lighting, restroom facilities and drinking fountains.

After the Big Dam Bridge, the nearly completed Medical Mile was the next feature to open. A formal ribbon-cutting ceremony and contributors’ dinner was held last week.

“The Medical Mile has already become a nationally recognized project because it was the first successful marriage of a health and trail development in an urban setting,” Eastin said. The project took nearly 10 years of study and planning.

The Medical Mile begins in Riverfront Park and includes a “Wellness Walkway” and a path along the park’s sea wall, decorated with three-dimensional art.

Eastin, who worked in partnership with Heart Clinic Arkansas, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, St. Vincent Health System and a host of physicians, said the trail, which she called “the nation’s first linear, outdoor health museum,” along with additions like the Big Dam Bridge, means organizers have to get serious about marketing, not only on a local and state level but on a national and international stage as well.

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