Arkansas River Trail Bicycle route becoming point of interest
Whether you are taking a leisurely ride or training for a cycling event, the Arkansas River Trail boasts some of the most scenic views of any biking trail in the United States. Where else can you see a beautiful city skyline, a submarine, a state-of-the-art baseball park, a mountain and a dog park, while on a stroll through one of central Arkansas’ premiere points of interest. In fact, former first lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton, declared the Arkansas River Trail one of the finest in the country, placing it on her Millennium Trails list.
The Arkansas River Trail has origins dating back to the early to mid-’90s, when the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock collaborated on what was known as the River Project in late 1994. The River Project involved building what is now Verizon Arena, expanding the Little Rock Convention Center, creating the River Rail system and constructing the River Trail.
In Arkansas, the county judge serves as the chief executive officer of the county, deciding how county funds will be spent, approving grants and becoming involved in county projects and programs — including the intricate trail system.
Initially elected in 1992, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines led the movement and saw these projects to fruition. “We began to talk about creating a place along the river, downtown, where people wanted to be — for entertainment, just being with people and being outside.”
Villines worked on the promising project with North Little Rock’s then-Mayor Patrick Hays. The two were trying to find the best place to connect the North Little Rock and Little Rock sides of the trail, and eventually determined the spot to join the two with a bridge at the 7-mile marker. The loop is now about 15 miles, regardless of which side of the Arkansas River you choose to begin. Although the spot had been chosen to begin building the now-complete Big Dam and Two Rivers bridges, Villines said it took more than that to get the deal done.
“The county took it on as a project, forming an agreement with the Corps of Engineers, who own the dam, and began to proceed,” Villines said. “It took eight years to answer all the why-nots.”
The Big Dam Bridge is 14 feet wide, more than 4,200 feet long, and was constructed with more than 24 million pounds of concrete and 3 million pounds of steel. The iconic metropolitan landmark was officially opened in 2006 and has been a great success thus far, according to Villines.
“Since April of last year to Dec. 17 of last year, there have been nearly 400,000 people on that bridge,” Villines said. “It’s been phenomenally successful.”
A few noteworthy individuals have graced its path, including Ruth Lincoln, a 110-year-old woman who took a stroll across the bridge in September 2006. The Big Dam Bridge has even been the locale for a wedding, which Villines officiated.
“It’s the only bridge of its kind,” Villines said. “Not only is it the longest pedestrian bicycle bridge, we believe, ever built, anywhere, it’s also the only bridge, we believe, that was built over a dam where the dam was not designed to have a bridge over it.”
It took nearly $13 million to construct the bridge, funded largely in part , by the federal government. Villines said $7.5 million of the nearly $13 million came from federal grants.
The Little Rock Parks and Recreation encourages people from all walks to life to take advantage of the trail and experience the great outdoors.
“Whether you are an athlete, need to lose weight, want to get outside or just want to walk your dog, the river trail is a place for all people,” according to the organization’s information about the River Trail.
North Little Rock Parks and Recreation provides a helpful section in its rules and guidelines discussing use of the River Trail. One vital and heralded rule about the trail says that “only non-motorized forms of transportation are allowed with the exception of motorized wheelchairs and emergency or maintenance vehicles.”
The department also reminds visitors that Burns Park, which the River Trail runs through, is a former military training site. The organization reports that old munitions have been found and asks that passersby who see any leave them alone, vacate the area and call the police.
In July 2011, the Two Rivers Park bridge was completed and opened, touting colored, LED lights, that illuminate the night sky.
“It’s not the physical challenge that the Big Dam Bridge is, so you get a lot of people who will start out there,” Villines said of the nearly 1,300-foot pedestrian bridge. He added that the Two Rivers Bridge was funded via an 80-20 funding split: 80 percent of the $5.3 million it took to fund the project came from the Federal Highway Administration, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“I’ve been down there mid-morning and on a nice day and there’ll be 10, 15 or 20 young mothers with babies in strollers … you’ll see an adult with a child on a training-wheel bicycle,” Villines said.
He said he was so inspired by this frequent scene that he commissioned a sculpture to be created. He predicts the sculpture, titled “Family,” will be erected early this summer.
“I see a community as a mosaic- every piece is important, every person is important,” Villines said. “So many are hell bent on asphalt and concrete and steel and glass.” Villines has been passionate about the project that took more than a decade to complete. “People are out walking and riding their bikes. They are out in the open air and they’re enjoying it, they love it and I think that’s important to the future of this community.”
Villines said is not done making additions to the River Trail, and that he is already planning projects for current and future Central Arkansans. Villines said he wants to expand the River Trail to reach even more large concentrations of people, including the more than 13,000 students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The project, which is already in progress, will connect the trail to Burns Park upon completion.
“We’ve got the first phase done and we’ll do the second phase this coming year and that will take it to 19th Street,” Villines said. “We’re working with the city, UALR and the Wastewater [utility] to take the trail south of the fields out there at the athletic complex and going all the way to Burns Park.”
“Our goal is eventually to get it connected all the way to the River Trail and, most or if not all of that, will have to be on streets, but at least have a street designed, striped in ways that will provide more safety,” Villines said.