It was almost 10 years ago when we first got our hopes up on the possibilities of the Southwest Trail. A bicycle/pedestrian trail to be built, mainly, along the Old Rock Island rail line from Little Rock to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Over the next decade, grants were applied for, public meetings were held, county judges retired and were replaced, and for a while, it seemed that things had come to a grinding halt. But that’s not the case.
Designing a greenway across three counties, multiple cities and towns, multiple legislative districts, and under the jurisdiction of various state and federal government agencies is a time-consuming task. Even experienced professionals may find it takes longer than anticipated. In addition to obtaining right-of-way easements, purchasing properties, and obtaining building permissions from the appropriate authorities, those who champion the trail also collaborate with engineers, designers, and public property planners. Oh yeah, then there is the money.
67 miles of trails through wetlands, over rivers up and down hills and mountains while maintaining proper grades, access points, parking lots, water fountains and landscaping isn’t cheap. Well, unless you compare it to the cost of a road or highway. The counties have had to find grants, mostly federal, to pay for the design and construction while at the same time working on trail alignment. The latest construction cost estimate is running between $50-60 million.
I reached out to Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde who took the mantle of building the trail through Pulaski County from Judge Buddy Villines when he retired in 2014. Judge Hyde was in a good mood in regard to the trail and had some great news. One of the pieces of bureaucracy that he was waiting on is what is called a 404 Permit that would be issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE). This permit is part of the Clean Water Act and would be needed to begin construction through the wetlands and over rivers along the trail corridor. The Judge was led to believe the process would take about a year. The county received the permit last week, approximately 6 years after it was applied for.
Judge Hyde said, “The big complicating factor is that we couldn’t permit alone, we had to permit the entire Southwest Trail from Central High to Hot Springs National Park on one application (through 3 counties). The other complicating factor is the project spans two USACOE jurisdictions, the Vicksburg and Little Rock Districts. It involved them forming a partnership and the Vicksburg District, allowing the Little Rock District to take the lead. And then of course, once they were, done, Vicksburg had to review all of their work and approve it. The bottom line is that was a major, major, major hurdle that we’re getting passed and, now we’re beyond it.”
The county is now advertising for bids on phase one of the project which starts along the Old Rock Island Railroad from the Saline County line, north, to Hilaro Springs Road. Judge Hyde expects to break ground on this section in July of this year. The Judge said that this section has two bridges that will be prefabricated and placed on site. The rest is on an elevated train bed.
“From the Saline County line, really all the way to the State Fairgrounds will traverse some of the most natural, beautiful, and wildlife areas that exists in Pulaski County. Just the access to the parkland is gonna be huge,” said Hyde.
Judge Hyde said phase two would be from Hilaro Springs Road to Baseline Road and would go to bid in April of 2024. The Judge expects phase 3 between Baseline Road and 65th Street to be under construction before the end of 2024. This is all possible due to grants that have been awarded while the county waited on the 404 and other permits. The judge is currently working on a Raise Grant that would pay for 65th Street to Central High School and is optimistic about it being awarded to the county. He also hopes to get the trail between Central High School and the Arkansas River Trail constructed under this phase. Many of these grants are administered by the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) giving them various review responsibilities.
According to Judge Hyde, if all goes well, we should be able to begin using portions of the Southwest Trail in the southern part of Pulaski County sometime in the next two years. Watch for more information on the state of The Southwest Trail in Saline and Garland County soon.