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Pedestrian & Bike Trail Proposed Linking Little Rock And Hot Springs

Southwest Trail
Michael Hibblen

County administrators of Pulaski, Saline and Garland Counties are proposing construction of a bicycle and pedestrian trail linking Little Rock and Hot Springs.

They were joined Thursday by several of the mayors of cities and towns that the trail would pass through, making an enthusiastic pitch for the project for reporters and cycling advocates.

“When this is completed, we will have something that is second to none in this country,” said Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines. 

The popularity of the Arkansas River Trail, the Big Dam Bridge and the Two Rivers Park Bridge, he said, shows the public welcomes opportunities to bike, jog and walk.

Garland County Judge Rick Davis said it also draws visitors and revenue for businesses.

“For these tourists, it’s about the journey. They look for scenery, rural areas, historical sites, parks, museums and other tourist attractions. If you take a look at this project, it has all of those characteristics. It’s a good thing,” Davis said.

The plan calls for building most of the trail on top of abandoned railroad beds.  Little Rock to Benton follows the line of the Rock Island, whose track was removed after its bankruptcy in 1980.  From Benton to Hot Springs is the former Missouri Pacific right-of-way.  Full details of the route, which were shown during a presentation, can be viewed here

“The trail itself would roughly stretch 67 miles and cross three counties," said Mason Ellis, vice-president of Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas, who has been working with local officials on planning it.

"It would go through the communities of Little Rock, Shannon Hills, Benton and Bauxite, with a short spur possible up to Bryant, down through Haskell, Lonsdale and enter into Hot Springs, as well as possibly even an extension all the way out to Lake Ouachita State Park.”

The Rock Island was the same railroad that used what is today known as the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, crossing the Arkansas River. It was eventually renovated for cyclists and pedestrians and is part of the Arkansas River Trail, which would link with the trail to Hot Springs.

South of Benton, Ellis said the trail would use another impressive old structure.

"Some of ya’ll may have seen this bridge, this is the 120 year old Saline River bridge," Ellis said while showing photos of it during a presentation. 

"It’s still there. It needs a lot of love, but actually there is a group in the Saline County area that’s already focusing on revamping this bridge for pedestrian, bike and even equestrian use and looking at the possibilities of perhaps building a park on either side for canoeing activities as well. So it’s already had some interest and this would be the midpoint of the whole trail section," Ellis said.

Pulaski County’s Buddy Villines says there are clear advantages to using what was a track bed for a railroad, with gradual curves and smooth grades originally intended for the locomotives.

“Back when they built these things, they weren’t all that powerful and carrying a really heavy load, so they tried to find the flattest way, the most level way to get around even hills and mountains, and when they couldn’t, they built something that crossed stuff," Villines said.

Many of the abandoned overpasses are still in place and could likely be used for the trail.

One of those in Little Rock crosses 7th Street, about a mile west of the Capitol, alongside a second overpass that is still used today by Union Pacific.

South of there, the old track bed is about a block away from Central High School, with officials considering linking the historic site, which draws visitors to see where the Little Rock Nine integrated the school in 1957.  The track then ran alongside the state fairgrounds, before heading south toward Saline County.

Bauxite Mayor Johnny McMahan says the trail would be great for his community and he appreciates the history of the trains that once ran through there.

“This is very important to us because the Rock Island Line goes straight through Bauxite. There’s a lot of scenery that can be scene and the Rock Island Line, in the past, had a lot to do with hauling aluminum and bauxite out of Bauxite. So now, we’ll have a way to bring people back through Bauxite," McMahan said.

Four years ago KUAR reported on Saline County officials then considering a plan to build a highway on the former track bed, with that proposal including a seven mile bicycle and pedestrian trail.

At that time, many who lived along the path like Steve Sullivan said they didn’t like the idea.

“We’d lose all of our privacy and the walking and bike trail, that’s fine if you’re in a gated community, but out here, you’re asking every derelict around to come pilfer through our yard at all hours of the night,” Sullivan said in May 2009.

That idea was eventually rejected in favor of what is now being proposed. But much of the right of way of the old railroad line has been sold and Judge Buddy Villines acknowledged Thursday that there would be challenges.

“We know some places, some property exchanges have been made and even one place, a judge said a building is in that area. So for people listening and reading what this is about, don’t panic. We’re going to work with property owners and try to determine the right-of-way” for the trail, Villines promised.

He estimates it would cost $20 to 25 million to complete, which would likely be done through a public-private partnership, as other trails around the state have been financed.

“We’re calling it the Southwest Trail simply because we don’t have another name. Little Rock to Hot Springs wasn’t enough because Saline County plays such a big role in it, so it’s Southwest Trail. Now, if you know any benefactors that want to put up about $15 or $20 million, we’ll name it after them,” Villines said to chuckles from the audience.

There’s no time frame for completing the project, with Villines saying it could easily take up to 10 years if it were constructed in small pieces. But he says Arkansas has developed a national reputation for its trails and that linking Little Rock and Hot Springs would greatly enhance that.

It comes amid other projects to convert old railroad beds into trails.  One is on another stretch of what was Rock Island right of way east of North Little Rock.  Another under construction through the city  is converting military track that ran to Camp Robinson into a trail that would also link to the river trail.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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