An $880,000 federal grant is being awarded to Pulaski County to build part of a pedestrian and bicycling path that will link Little Rock and Hot Springs. The Southwest Trail will mostly be constructed on two former railroad right-of-ways.
The county owns a 4.2 mile stretch that was once part of the Rock Island Railroad, running from Hilaro Springs Road to the Saline County line. The money from the U.S. Department of Transportation is to go toward replacing three wooden trestles. Two are no longer there, while the other has rotted and is structurally deficient. The rail line was abandoned after the bankrupt railroad was shut down in 1980.
"We need safe structures to support the recreational trail, and that’s exactly what this new grant will help us do," said Wallace Smith, director of federal services for the engineering firm Garver.
The trail was formally proposed in 2013 by Pulaski, Saline and Garland County officials, along with the mayors of cities and towns it would go through. Garver was hired by the counties to be the designer of record.
Smith said it’s hoped that surveying, designing and building the Pulaski County bridges, which will cover streams and creeks, can be completed in about a year, though details are still being worked out.
"There’s going to be some discussion about what would be the right building material for those bridges. We want it to be long-lasting, relatively maintenance-free and fireproof," Smith said.
The Southwest Trail is to begin in Little Rock near Central High School, go over the Saline River via the 119-year-old Old River Bridge, then end at Hot Springs National Park. The bridge, which is considered to be the second-oldest still standing in the state, received a $500,000 grant in 2015 to begin renovation work.
Smith said environmental documentation is being prepared and soon the public can see a final presentation.
"It’s not too much longer that the entire trail will be designed and then we’ll be looking to build segments or large parts of that mileage using whatever funds that we can get our hands on," Smith said.
The trail will follow a path used by the Rock Island from Little Rock to Benton. From there it would follow a former Missouri Pacific right-of-way to Hot Springs. “Rails-to-trails” programs are popular with cyclists, joggers and walkers because they feature gradual curves and hills and aren’t shared with vehicular traffic.
"Virtually every time and wherever one of these is built, it helps raise property values," Smith said. "It’s always seen as an amenity for businesses, for residents; it should be a very popular thing indeed."