- NEXT STOP, AIRPORT: Plans to expand River Rail are moving ahead.
With gas at $4 per gallon and rising, it's seeming like a better idea all the time: link the city's streetcar line to a station at the Little Rock National Airport, transforming what has so far been mostly a quaint, tourist-friendly gee-gaw into a true light rail peoplemover. They're thinking in that direction at the Little Rock National Airport as well, with three of the four possible designs submitted by Jacobs Consultancy featuring a River Rail stop just outside the doors of the teminal.
For now, the only thing standing in the way of door to door service between downtown Little Rock and the airport is a route — and 3.4 miles of track, overhead cabling, and an agreement on who pays for it all.
“We have no control over that,” said Tom Schueck, a member of the airport's Terminal Task Force. “But what we have to do if they go ahead and do it is make preparations for it. I think sometime in the future, they expect some type of light rail to be coming in from the city to the airport. That's still alive.”
Betty Wineland is the executive director of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority. In October 2007, Wineland said, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines and North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays went to Metroplan and asked for money to conduct a study on expanding the River Rail to the airport. Wineland said that as of a few days ago, the study hasn't begun, but added that Metroplan has contracted with Fort Worth's URS Corporation to conduct the study.
“Until we see the results of the study we're not going to have any idea as to cost estimates and what the jurisdictions are,” she said, referring to how much of the cost burden will be split between North Little Rock, Little Rock and Pulaski County. Wineland said that once a study is completed, it should take around two years before the first streetcar finds its way to the airport. “You've got to do preliminary design, final design, environmental impact and all the things that are required before the project can begin,” Wineland said.
If allowed to travel between the airport and downtown on a fixed guideway — a dedicated track where conductors don't have to contend with stoplights and street traffic — Wineland said the cars could potentially reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. Cars could also be configured with extra space for bulky luggage.
When the idea of extending the streetcar line to the airport first began, planners speculated that the project would cost around $30 million.
“But the way prices are going up on everything right now — oil byproducts and steel and everything else — I don't know,” Wineland said. “It's going to be interesting to have to determine what the cost will be by the time it's all completed.”