The Southwest Trail, a biking and hiking trail that would link Pulaski, Saline and Garland counties, has been pedaling in low gear since local cycling enthusiasts came up with the idea in 2013. They got some good news recently: According to Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde, the Federal Lands Access Program of the Department of Transportation will provide money to hire engineers to design a 58-mile route, mostly on abandoned railroad beds.
The announcement from the DOT is not official; Hyde learned that the counties' grant application, for $3.5 million, would be awarded at a recent conference. He's waiting for official word, so the exact sum the counties will receive is not yet known. But Hyde is confident the money is coming, and the Southwest Trail — named for an early 19th century network of routes connecting the St. Louis area to northeast Texas — is closer to reality.
The FLAP grant funds routes that connect federal landmarks. In the case of the three counties' application, that is from Central High School to Hot Springs National Park. Pulaski County is well on its way, thanks to former Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines' decision to buy up abandoned railroad lines in unincorporated areas. The trail becomes problematic in Saline and Garland counties, where the rail right of ways are in private hands. In Saline County alone, County Judge Jeff Arey said, there are around 66 parcels with 30 different owners. However, thanks to biking enthusiasts there, Saline County has also received a total of $1.3 million in Transportation Alternatives Program grants to restore the abandoned 1891 Old River Bridge over the Saline River for bike and pedestrian traffic.
Meanwhile, Metroplan hopes to launch a bike share program this year for Little Rock and North Little Rock and has put out a request for proposals from private businesses to operate the program. The first phase of the project would ask the bike share provider to put between 50 and 150 bikes at 15 to 30 stations. The RFP states that "Depending on the level of private support generated, Metroplan, CLR [City of Little Rock] and NLR intend to have little or no financial obligation in the Phase One launch," which would be the first three years of the program. The RFP asks that the bike service provider propose fees, including reduced rates for low-income riders, and create a park-and-ride opportunity within the "focal area," which will include the River Cities Center and areas of high density employment, parking and attractions. There is a May 18 deadline for RFPs.
John Landosky, Little Rock's BikePed coordinator, said the city is "reaching out" to businesses to support the bike share program in exchange for branding opportunities. He said such programs have been successful in 140 communities.
Little Rock briefly had a bike share program, but the bikes were free and seldom returned. The bike share program envisioned now would require a fee to ride, like City Bikes in New York and elsewhere.
Little Rock still has some railroad bed that it is negotiating to buy from Union Pacific for the Southwest Trail, or whatever it will finally be called. A task force of residents from the three counties working on standards, such as width, signage, trailheads and sight lines, for the multiuse trail will also consider a name for the trail.
Little Rock's segment of the Southwest Trail would be mostly on paved streets. The trail would pass through Interstate Park and on to Hilaro Springs, and would use boardwalks through the bottoms in the swampy areas of South Little Rock.
A 2015 study of the Southwest Trail corridor and its potential economic impact by the Alta Planning and Design firm out of Bentonville estimated a 65-mile trail would cost $33.3 million. In Saline County, the trail would go through Benton on a route roughly parallel to U.S. Highway 70. The Garland County portion, from Lonsdale to downtown Hot Springs, will probably be west of the Highway 70 corridor, along old state Highway 188 below Lake Hamilton, Hyde said, though that is far afield of the optimum route as originally conceived by the Alta study.
Hyde, who happens to be a cyclist himself, said the trail would be a perfect fit for a future TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant for construction.
Architect and cyclist Mason Ellis and others came up with the idea to create a trail to Hot Springs on abandoned railbed. "I am thrilled," Ellis said of the news of the FLAP grant. "It would be such a great amenity to have for the whole region." Ellis is a member of the bike task force.