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Stimulus boosts Rock Island Bridge

Scramble for funds now has deadline.

  • RENOVATION NEARER: Thanks to Beebe.

Walkers, bikers and tourism advocates were excited to learn recently that the office of Gov. Mike Beebe will commit $2.5 million in federal stimulus dollars to the renovation of the Rock Island Bridge. The pedestrian and cycling bridge, on the grounds of the Clinton Library, will connect Little Rock and North Little Rock and help complete the River Trail loop.

The commitment leaves the Clinton Foundation just $2 million shy of the $10.5 million required to complete the project. It also comes with a deadline.

The remaining funds will have to be raised by the foundation by Dec. 31, 2010. But that won't be a problem, Clinton Foundation spokesperson Jordan Johnson said Monday.

“Incentives are always good,” Johnson said. “That is a huge incentive for us to say, OK, we have to go identify these remaining funds. It's a good position to be in.”

The Clinton Foundation initially committed $4 million to the effort and has raised an additional $1 million. The city of Little Rock has committed $1 million to the renovation. 

Mayor Mark Stodola said getting the project completed is a top priority.

“I'm not worried about [the deadline],” Stodola said Monday. “Believe me, I want this off of my desk and under construction way before then.”

Johnson saids the foundation has reached out to a number of private donors and submitted a number of grant applications.

“We're casting a wide net,” Johnson said. “We're still working hard to secure the remaining funds. Once we have those identified then that's when we'll pull the trigger.”

Once funds are in place, “It would take us 45 days to get to what you call ‘site-ready.' Basically the whole abutment of that bridge has to be excavated. At the end of that period, we would be 15 to 18 months away from completion,” Johnson said.

The Foundation committed to renovating the bridge when it submitted a proposal to lease the land from the city in 2001. Johnson said there has been a “rededicated effort” to raise the funds over the past five years.

“These things always take longer than one would want,” Stodola said. “I think that as time has gone on, prices have escalated and the fact that it's going to be available to cyclists means it has special requirements. When the commitment was made I don't know if all those issues were addressed.”

Stodola said he is trying to secure additional funding for the project as well, but some think the responsibility should lie solely with the Clinton Foundation.

Businessman and biking advocate Gene Pfeifer thinks the city should focus its efforts on completing the River Trail and the Clinton Foundation should take full responsibility for the Rock Island Bridge.

The city has “more than fulfilled their obligation to the bridge's renovation,” Pfeifer says. “The city's time and resources would be better spent trying to secure that stretch of land behind Dillard's and completing this River Trail. The Foundation should be responsible for everything over $1 million.”

Pfeifer was referring to the city's plans to build a trail along the bluff line behind the Dillard's headquarters on Cantrell Road that would connect downtown to the trail west. Bikers now have to use Cantrell Road and other busy streets. Securing a safe bicycle path through downtown Little Rock is one of the main goals of bicycle advocacy organizations and other groups, like the Close the Loop Task Force.

“As aggressively as we've been working on completing this bridge, we've been working just as aggressively on completing that section of the trail,” Stodola said.

Once the plans are finished for the renovation of the bridge, Stodola said it's likely that a public facility commission will be set up by the city to manage its operation.

“The bridge is owned by the city, and since it will be in a city park, the plan is going to need some city approval. What we're working on right now is to make sure that once this money is released that we're ready to rock 'n' roll and get whatever entity that's ultimately going to do the contracting on it and the operation of it in place.”

Stodola said he is confident the Clinton Foundation will find the remaining funds for the project. He added, however, that there needs to be a Plan B in case those private donations and grants don't come through. “I'd like to see an announcement by the end of the year,” he says.

Johnson hopes to finalize plans on the bridge much sooner than that.

“I think we'll know something in about 60 days. We're leaving no stone unturned.”

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