Fight Over Whether To Turn Former Railroad Bed Into Highway

May 7, 2009

Tommy Thompson and his wife Irene walk across a long trestle that once had tracks belonging to the Rock Island Railroad, where today officials are discussing building a highway.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

A battle is brewing in Saline County between community leaders who want to build a highway over an abandoned railroad bed and homeowners who say it would encroach on their property.  It would provide another route connecting Benton and Little Rock.

Walking on a clear path where tracks once carried the trains of the Rock Island Railroad, Irene Thompson said, "Looking at it, it's unbelievable isn't it?" But she and her husband Tommy dread the thought of a highway being constructed on their property.

“If they build this highway in here then we’d have a straight shoot from Little Rock trouble to Benton trouble and we just really don’t want that kind of crap coming down here,” said Tommy Thompson.

The couple has lived there nearly half a century and bought a small stretch of the Rock Island right-of-way, which bordered their property, after the railroad went bankrupt and was shut down in 1980.

The longest of the former railroad trestles on the Thompson's land, which is about 300 feet long.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Walking further, they come to a series of rotting trestles, one more than 300 feet long above Hurricane Creek.

“This is an old railroad bridge, there's water on both sides.  They would have to put a (new) bridge in here and the cost would be astronomical, just for this one bridge," said Irene Thompson.

The key advocate for the project is Saline County Judge Lanny Fite, who says despite the opposition, the highway is needed.

"I understand their concerns, I would have concerns too.  But the population growth in Saline County since I’ve been in (office) has gone from in 2000 was like 85,000 and we’ve grown nearly 20,000 in the last 10 years," Fite said.  "A lot of that is happening in the eastern part where this is. So the traffic is getting heavier and heavier on our existing collectors and arterials over there, so we’ve got to look to the future and we desperately need that.”

The county administrator says there are key reasons why this would be better than expanding an existing roadway.

Saline County Judge Lanny Fite shows the proposed route for the Rock Island Parkway.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

“Well one of the advantages is it goes through the entire county. It connects five of the seven cities together," Fite said.  "Also, being a railroad, it had gradual curves and slopes in it unlike some of the existing roads. Some of the existing major roads were at one time wagon trails and they make sharp turns and they go over hills and they dip and they turn and this road right here would be much easier to develop for a corridor through the county than some of the existing roads.”

But those who live along the old right-of-way – like John Terry of Alexander – say the highway would come too close to their homes.  

“This property was bought after the Rock Island went bankrupt and it’s my understanding the first proposed phase would be a hundred foot right-of-way which would bring the boundary to within 50 feet of where we’re standing. Then the second phase would extend it another hundred feet, which would bring it right up next to my home which would not be nice at all.”

John Terry, right, and another neighbor who are opposed to the proposed parkway, which would bring traffic near their homes.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Terry has been leading efforts to fight the project. He says it could easily cost more than $25 million and worries that could mean higher county taxes.

Judge Fite acknowledges it could be many years before roadwork would begin.

“If we can secure the entire right-of-way through the county, we may not build all of it, but someone later down will be building this. There’s not very many opportunities where you can go and buy, as we’re doing right now, a hundred foot right-of-way, seven and a half miles long," Fite said.

"If you went to try and buy that right now you would find structures in the way, historical monuments, cemeteries, I just can’t name all the things that would probably be in your way trying to do that. So this is an opportunity we don’t need to let pass.”

The highway would also include a seven-and-a-half mile walking and bicycle trail. That’s an issue for Steve Sullivan, who bought his property in 1986, in part because of its remoteness.

“Well the former roadbed is probably 150 feet away from our house, but we would lose all of our privacy. And the other thing I don’t like is the biking and walking trail, and that’s fine in a gated community, but out here, you’re inviting every derelict around to come pilfer through our yard at all hours of the night.”

In the coming weeks, a public hearing will be held in Benton to look at property surveys and aerial photos to establish who owns pieces of the right of way.

Judge Fite says they will then begin negotiations to purchase the land. But many, like Irene Thompson, say they will fight the effort.

“We’re not really wanting to sell our land. And he says 'if we’re not willing to sell he can take it by eminent domain,' that’s not right.”

There’s also no commitment from Pulaski County officials that they would be willing to complete the highway into Little Rock or if it would end at the county line.