“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” – Adapted from Robert Burns
Since officially opening in 2002, the Arkansas River Trail in central Arkansas has hosted numerous important opening ceremonies, in 2006 it was the opening of The Big Dam Bridge, and two years later it was the Junction Bridge. In 2011 there was the Two River Bridge opening which tied the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock to what is currently being called the Maumelle Pinnacle Initiative. Also, in 2011, the Clinton Presidential Library Bridge was opened anchoring the eastern end of the Arkansas River Trail. When the Broadway Bridge was rebuilt and opened in 2017, it created the fourth bike/pedestrian-friendly crossing between Little Rock and North Little Rock. (The Main Street Bridge has a narrow protected pedestrian path.) There has not been a ceremony for an actual opening of the Arkansas River Trail, could it be because it’s still not finished?
For all of these connections between the cities, the Arkansas River Trail remains incomplete. There have been many ideas for completing the trail between the Gill Street Bridge on Cantrell Road (State Highway 10) and Cross Street. Some have been mere ideas expressed by public officials, a few have been drawn out on maps, and some have made it as far as various amounts of engineering design. Still, no safe, family-friendly route through this area for pedestrians or people on bicycles for over 20 years now.
We’ve put together a history of plans to “Close the Loop” from various sources including local trail advocates, city employees, a FOIA request to the City of Little Rock, and former Mayor, Mark Stodola. There have been several ideas that included both sides of Cantrell Road from the Gill Stree Bridge (anchoring the west side of the section) and LaHarpe Blvd (on the east side of the section). See the map below.
South of Cantrell Road
For many years, the temporary trail went, west to east, under the Gill Street Bridge, along the sidewalk in front of Episcopal Collegiate School to North Street. It then followed North Street around and up to a narrow crossing on the Cantrell Road Bridge over the railroad tracks, then followed Cross Street south to Markham Boulevard to Arch Street, then north to the river trail under the Broadway Bridge. This route meant traversing a very narrow sidewalk directly alongside fast traffic on Cantrell. Users were also required to navigate Markham Road which can be very busy during rush hours with the only bicycle infrastructure being made up of sharrows. This has always made a route on the south side of Cantrell Road undesirable due to safety concerns. However, there were still plans to build in the area due to Dillard’s reluctance to allow the trail to go near their headquarters.
One of the early plans presented was to go south of the Episcopal Collegiate school between the school and the railroad tracks. While this would have allowed users to avoid the entrance to the school, a dangerous intersection, it would have been a very convoluted way of getting through the section and still would have left users to deal with downtown streets. As other plans were rejected to go on the north side of Cantrell Road, Mayor Stodola looked a temporary fixes between the school and the state highway. A widening of the sidewalk was accomplished but the aforementioned safety issues still existed.
North of Cantrell Road
As former Mayor Stodola pointed out, the best alignment of the trail would be on the north or river side of Cantrell Road. This would keep the trail from having to cross a major state highway and keep the trail off the downtown streets. Route finding would be much easier and help to make the Arkansas River Trail a viable commuting route between West Little Rock and downtown. The aesthetics of being closer to the river would also increase the use of the trail.
In 2015-2016, Mayor Stodola proposed a trail between the Dillard’s headquarters and the Arkansas River. A video was produced that the mayor attempted to take to Bill Dillard II for his approval but according to the mayor, Mr. Dillard refused to meet with him at first. Eventually, after the popular video had been put online, Dillard’s executives produced a list including security, lighting, and parking concerns that they would want the city to address before they would approve the construction of the new trail. Mayor Stodola said he answered each of these points but that Dillard’s executives continued to be against the trail gong near their headquarters. I asked the mayor why the Dillard’s are against something that would be so positive for the city, he said, “They’ve never said why.”
Years after this plan was blocked, a new idea was brought by the city and local advocates that would bring the trail behind the Dillard’s data building above the river and then behind the 1836 building (also known as the Packet House) and then south utilizing some of the parking lots in front of the Dillard’s headquarters. There were various iterations of this idea, the coolest one being one that included bridges that went over the Dillard’s entrance and exit drives, gradually dropping down the current trail to the west of Dillard’s.
This idea was presented by Mason Ellis representing Bicycle Advocacy of Arkansas in 2016 to Dillard’s executives.
This idea included the possibility of using the bridge as a gateway to the Dillard’s headquarters complex, complete with the Dillard’s name at the entrance.
Another plan was presented with this concept except with tunnels instead of bridges. So the previous ideas have included going around both sides of Dillard’s, over Dillard’s, and even under Dillard’s.
The Current Situation
In the last few days, the City of Little Rock has taken down the detour signs that were temporarily taking Arkansas River Trail users in front of the Episcopal Collegiate School. The trail is now back to the official trail utilizing the sidewalk between Dillard’s headquarters and Cantrell Road (state highway 10). The sidewalk is of standard width and not designed for bicycle use. It crosses traffic coming in different directions at 6 places (in the two entrances/exits to Dillard’s headquarters).
Stodola remains interested in closing the loop. He has looked at an idea that the City of Portland, Oregon did in a similar situation on the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade along the Willamette River through downtown Portland. A portion of the trail floats on the river, anchored by large pylons allowing the trail to move up and down as the river rises and drops. As part of an exploratory trip made by the parks and tourism professionals several years ago, I had the opportunity to ride the floating bridge. Construction is such that the only way to tell that the bridge moved at all was by looking at the spot where the floating structure met the pylons. Ramps that moved with the rise and fall of the river allowed users to easily get on and off the section.
This idea is not without its hurdles. First, the plan would have to be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There will also be numerous engineering issues to resolve. And then there will be the question of funding. Still, like the mayor’s plan to go behind Dillard’s headquarters, this transportation corridor would double as a city attraction.
The City of Little Rock is currently engaging an engineering firm to look at other options as part of the Arkansas Department of Transportations planned rebuild of the Gill Street Bridge. As described in our previous article on closing the loop, the engineering firm is working to create different options to present to Dillard’s for approval. These options are likely to be along the lines of widening the route between Dillard’s and Cantrall Road. To date, Dillard’s has not greeted any previous plan warmly.
If you are interested in getting involved in closing the loop and completing the Arkansas River Trail, here are some ideas:
- For citizens of Little Rock – Contact Mayor Frank Scott’s office, your city ward director, the ward 1 director (where the gap exists), and all at-large ward directors. Also, contact those listed below. You can find your city ward director here: https://www.littlerock.gov/city-administration/board-of-directors/
- For anyone interested – Contact the offices of Representative French Hill, State Senators Clarke Tucker, Fred Love, Linda Chesterfield, and State Representative Tippi McCullough. Also, contact the First Gentleman’s office. Bryan Sanders is the chair of the Natural State Initiative an advisory board that includes Tom Walton and Bill Dillard III among its board.
Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas is the point group on getting the Arkansas River Trail completed safely. The next public meeting information is here. We recommend you try to make it.