Between a Rock and a Hard Place - Closing the Loop on the Arkansas River Trail

Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Closing the Loop on the Arkansas River Trail

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In October 2006, the Big Dam Bridge opened, connecting the Arkansas River Trail on the North Little Rock side of the Arkansas River to the Little Rock side. The bridge, built on top of a federal dam, has always represented to me, overcoming the impossible. Opened 5 years after the 9/11 attacks, the country was still reeling from a sense of intrusion, attacks on our soil, federal facilities deemed as future possible targets were still shut down to casual public use, and security was tight across the country. Riding my bike across the bridge on that beautiful Fall day felt like a return to normal. Every time I look at the bridge now, I’m reminded of what we can do against enormous odds.

Since the Big Dam Bridge opened, the region has seen a huge increase in bicycle/pedestrian connectivity. The Junction Bridge, the Clinton Library Bridge, the Two Rivers Bridge, and a safe connection over the Broadway Bridge have all been achieved. It’s been 17 years since that beautiful Fall day and still, the Arkansas River Trail remains unconnected.

In North Little Rock, the Arkansas River Trail has been given priority, improving and increasing purpose-built connections making the trail safer and more enjoyable. After the March 2023 tornado, the city prioritized getting the river trail section through Burns Park reopened. Casual visits along the trail show an incredible amount of use on the North Little Rock side.

The Hole in the Loop

The Arkansas River Trail has always had a major pinch point on the Little Rock side of the trail. It’s a short section but it has kept the Arkansas River Trail from being as safe and popular as it is promoted to be.

Arkansas River Trail along Cantrell Road (Highway 10)
Arkansas River Trail along Cantrell Road (Highway 10)

This section lies in the area between the Gill Street Bridge on Cantrell Road and the bridge over the railroad on La Harpe Boulevard. To get through this section, the trail has to pass between the Arkansas River, Dillard’s Headquarters, Cantrell Road (a state highway), the Episcopal School, and the trail tracks. It’s a tight space and one or more of these land managers are going to have to relinquish a reasonable-sized easement to create a safe bike/pedestrian path through the area. It should be remembered that much of the land that Dillard’s Headquarters is built on belongs to the City of Little Rock. We’ll explore each possible corridor.

Between the Arkansas River and Dillard’s Headquarters – Back around 2013-14, Mayor Mark Stodola floated an idea to put a cantilevered bridge around the north side of Dillard’s Headquarters over the Arkansas River, an expensive proposition but also very popular with users since it gave those on the trail a great view of the Arkansas River. Funding was difficult and the project was eventually abandoned.

See also  Dreaming of Closing the Loop

Between Dillard’s Headquarters and Cantrell Road – This is the official route although it has never been properly signed. (it is shut down until work on utilities under the Gill Street Bridge is completed). This section has to go through no less than 6 road entrances/exits for Dillard’s plus entrances for the 1836 Club and the Dillard’s Computer Center building. The design is such that both bicycles and pedestrians must share a narrow section of sidewalk. The street entrances make this section dangerous due to high vehicle traffic and poorly designed sidewalk entrance crossings. Cantrell Road is a state highway (Highway 10) and is thus under the management of the Arkansas Department of Transportation. Besides the current use of sidewalks, some widened, a plan was once floated for a bridge in front of Dillard’s that allowed pedestrians and bicycle riders to pass through the area safely above the traffic. This was also deemed expensive and was not approved by Dillard’s management.

Between Cantrell Road and the Episcopal Collegiate School – This is the current “detour” going under the Gill Street Bridge, riding the sidewalk across the road entrance to Episcopal and up to North Street. The route then follows North Street around and up a short hill to cross the railroad bridge on La Harpe. At one time, Mayor Stodola had the idea to create a wider, better-protected path here but was turned away by the principles of Episcopal Collegiate School.

Between Episcopal Collegiate School and the Railroad Tracks at Union Station – This was an early idea but was quickly dismissed when the principles of Episcopal Collegiate School felt it would draw homeless camps to the area.

The Arkansas River Trail looking east along Cantrell Road in front of Dillard's Headquarters.
The Arkansas River Trail looking east along Cantrell Road in front of Dillard’s Headquarters.

A common misconception that has been held by both Episcopal School and Dillard’s management is that protected bike/pedestrian trails draw homeless camps when, in fact, the opposite is true. There are actual homeless camps in these areas where there are no bike/pedestrian paths.

Over the years, there have been many plans for “Closing the Loop” but none have proved to be safe, enjoyable, or complete. When talking to tourists visiting the area on the Arkansas River Trail, I found that many had stories about being lost in the section or that they felt unsafe riding bikes through that section. Signage continues to be a problem that has confused even locals using the trail. Local bike rental companies go so far as to not offer tours through the area and direct individual customers to ride to the North Little Rock side to enjoy a bike ride.

See also  Why Does Closing the Loop Matter?

The latest plan

According to Jon Honeywell, Public Works Director for the City of Little Rock, the city is working with an, “…engineering consultant on various alignment options across the Dillard’s property. The consultant has been tasked with developing several of these to a level that shows impacts to both the existing roads and sidewalks as well as the off-street property. Once these are completed, the city plans to meet with Dillard’s representatives to further narrow the acceptable alignments.” Honeywell added, “The city will then engage with the Arkansas Department of Transportation on coordinating any work that will occur in their right of way and how it will integrate into the Gill Street Bridge replacement scheduled for next year.”

While I applaud the city’s attempt to complete the Arkansas River Trail, I am concerned that the results will be decided by Dillard’s and ARDOT, neither of which has been supportive of completing this over-twenty-year-old project.

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Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas Initiative.
Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas Initiative.

Importance Grows

There are currently several projects happening in different parts of the city that will rely on this connection being complete. The Maumelle Pinnacle Initiative connects outdoor recreation facilities from the Big Dam Bridge to Lake Sylvia Recreation Area intending to create interconnectivity between Little Rock and North Little Rock with these incredible outdoor opportunities. The Downtown Little Rock Partnership is currently working on a master plan that would improve connectivity within the downtown area but what good is that if it is unsafe to get to downtown via bike? Pulaski County has started construction on the Southwest Trail which will eventually connect the Arkansas River Trail to Hot Springs, AR. The county is also working on the Southeast Trail corridor which will also link to this incomplete section. MetroPlan continues to move forward with its Regional Greenways Initiative that will tie the Arkansas River Trail to Conway, Cabot, and Lonoke. None of these projects will ever be considered complete without a fully connected Arkansas River Trail.

It is past time for city leadership, elected officials, and business leaders, to get together and solve this issue. As we’ve seen with the construction of the Big Dam Bridge, nothing is impossible if leadership has the will to make it happen.

 

 

 

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14 Responses

  1. Thanks for publishing the various alternatives for completing the Little Rock River Trail. For 20 years cyclists and pedestrians have been promised by city government that the trail would be completed. We have to keep pressure on the mayor and the Little Rock city board to ensure they deliver.

  2. Joe I will be glad to help. Our Close the Loop group pushed the Clinton Bridge Finnish and we were successful. It can happen again but we need a very organized effort. NW Arkansas has left us behind. We neednour bike folks in Little Rock to get back and be involved Bring Close the Loop efforts back and let’s make it a chant! Happy Holidays 😎

  3. Thanks for laying things out yet again, Joe. With ARDOT’s indifference and Dillard’s politically powerful opposition effectively having stifled any exercise of power by the City, I fear that the unacceptable status quo will remain.
    Since I shut down my JBarCyling blog and have left the Central Arkansas cycling scene, I haven’t been close to the issues in last few years, but your article (and mine at the time) would likely would have read the same 10 years ago.

  4. The largest disappointment to me in all the years that I have been working with BACA(Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas) is not being able to Close the Loop! There must be a political reason for not wanting to build this. Is it City? Is it Dillard’s? Is it ARDOT? Completing the River Trail would be iconic for our city. The Big Dam Bridge is a perfect example of “if you build it, they will come.” Let’s support closing the loop in Little Rock and find out why it wasn’t done years ago!

  5. Great article Joe. I appreciate the timeline as the infrastructure that we all enjoy for both work and play didn’t just happen magically overnight. It took the tireless efforts of citizens who know how much better Little Rock could be and worked to make it happen. So many great things are happening across the region and we need to be the locomotive, not the caboose.

  6. Thank you for this article and all you do to bring awareness. While I understand there are so many entities involved in connecting this small section, it also seems ridiculous that it hasn’t happened yet. I have high anxiety riding this section and have never felt safe with having to ride on the road or the sidewalk and watching for cars and pedestrians. There are so many people closing this loop would benefit! It’s infuriating.

  7. Emails, reaching out to personal connections, keeping this issue front and center as much a possible. It’s a very dangerous section, especially the section in front of Dillards offices. I would hold all the players responsible if someone were to get hurt riding that section.

  8. Thanks for putting all of this in one place. Nice job. But, I’m certain that nothing will happen as long as the richest guy in the room wants nothing to happen and that was always the case when I was working to find an answer.
    The UP railroad wasn’t against the city using its own ROW to connect the riverfront under Cantrell until his contacts on their board said no. That was why I proposed a 7th street protected bike lane and a route on the backside of the Capitol. Not nearly as cool, but further away from his focus.
    There is no engineering a solution, until the richest guy in the room decides to cooperate or find something else to worry about. But, put a pin in this article. It will come in handy when he does.

  9. When I read your article and reflect back on our many efforts it seems Little Rock, Dillards, and Episcopal School leaders have chosen for the trail to unfinished. In contrast Bentonville business leaders, and those in many, many other cities have chosen to embrace and promote community trails for their citizens. The problem isn’t which path the trail should take to “close the loop”, the problem is those that are not accountable to our citizens are able to impede progress.

    https://www.visitbentonville.com/bike/trail-maps/paved/

  10. Thanks for summarizing this so clearly! I wonder about it every time I carefully snake my way through that area, narrowly avoiding highway traffic and sketchy scenes. Do you have suggestions of who we should reach out to? Is there a specific contact at the City, or are there planning meetings we could get involved in?

    I want to help make our voices heard, but I also don’t want to turn into a perpetual complainer that is never heard by the people who can actually change things.

    1. We recommend working with Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas (BACA). They are about to ramp up pressure on the city and local leadership to get this section fixed.

  11. It’s disappointing to see Dillard’s not cooperating to complete the Southwest Trail, leaving dead ends on both sides of their property. A connected trail system enhances livability and recreation, and their participation is crucial for a complete Arkansas River Trail. Let’s hope they reconsider for the benefit of the community! Dillard’s cooperation to help complete the Arkansas River Trail would certainly set them high on the pillar of community support. 🚴‍♂️ #CompleteTheTrail #OurLittleRock

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