n In a few weeks we will join the ranks of elite cities with a streetcar line! Seven years ago a citizen involvement process developed four goals for River Rail: improve mobility to new downtown attractions, support tourism and economic development, connect with history, and build a more advanced public transit system. I truly believe these goals are being reached. There are always skeptics and critics so I want to set the record straight on a few matters. Will streetcars have close encounters with parked cars? Yes! But we already see in the tightest area, the two blocks of the River Market, motorists are having no trouble parking inside that new white line. The streetcar bell rings to warn motorists, and each streetcar has a loud whistle if you are about to do something risky. Before getting out, just check traffic like you do whenever you park on the street. Did we lose parking spaces to build River Rail? Yes. We removed one dozen in both cities combined. In the meantime, more parking has been added, starting with 250 public spaces in the new River Market Parking Deck on Second Street. Once people learn they can take the streetcar to the various venues, it will be easier for the rest of you to find a parking space. What about streetcars jumping the track? If a wheel gets out of the track more than once a year, that will be a lot. Like streetcar tracks of yesteryear, ours will have an extra rail on the curves to keep wheels in the groove. The Main Street Bridge has another kind of safety rail to keep wheels on the main rail. Streetcars do not travel at high speed so if a wheel climbs out of the groove, there are seven other wheels still IN the groove. Most times, simply backing the streetcar a few feet fixes that problem. Even a minor derailment will be an extremely rare event. We have spent less than $4 million of local funds to build River Rail, less than the cost of one parking deck. Portland, Memphis, Tampa, Tacoma and New Orleans have seen tremendous growth in development with the opening of their new lines. Stores and restaurants stay open later. One Tacoma shopkeeper, when asked to describe the effect of the new line on her business, said, “It was like flipping on a switch.” The impact of River Rail will depend on how the private sector responds to the potential. It won’t be carrying just downtown workers, but also tourists and conventioneers. If others’ experience is any indicator, Saturdays will be the biggest days, when people from all over the region and the state come to downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock to go “Ridin’ in the Rocks.” Our leaders have wisely brought us back to the river with project after project the past 10 years. The streetcar trip across the river is truly breathtaking, and I am convinced it will be the centerpiece of our two downtowns. I cannot wait for you to try it.
Keith Jones is executive director of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority. Max Brantley is on vacation.