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Little Rock:
Streetcar Success Leads to Expansion of River Rail System

Light Rail Now Production Team – February 2006

The widely acclaimed success of Little Rock's new River Rail heritage streetcar system – basically, a type of light rail transit – has led to expansion of the service, expansion of the fleet, and a project to extend the system's track by approximately half a mile.

As Light Rail Now has previously reported (see Little Rock: River Rail Historic Streetcar Project to Bring Back Electric Trolleys), the River Rail line currently consists of loops in the downtowns of Little Rock and North Little Rock, connected by a middle section of single track over the Main St. Bridge spanning the Arkansas River. Total length of the line is about 2.5 miles, with 11 stops. And all of it delivered at a bargain price – less than $8 million per track-mile (2004), everything included.
[Map: CATA]

Service expansion

In August (2005), the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) board of directors voted to expand the River Rail streetcar service to run at least one car covering the entire 2.2-mi. (3.5-km) route at all times. Previously, one streetcar would cover the Little Rock loop and another would loop through North Little Rock, crossing the Arkansas River bridge to Little Rock. At the foot of the bridge, passengers heading into the city would have to transfer to another car, and a through route was operated only on weekends and a couple of weekday afternoons.
[Rail Transit Online, August 2005]

North Little Rock merchants had particularly lobbied CATA for the service change, convinced that potential customers from Little Rock would travel to their side of the river if there through service was provided at all times. Thus, it's hoped that the service expansion – which began September 1st last year – will foster a major boost in business for these merchants.

River Rail connects Little Rock and North Little Rock via Main St. bridge, soaring up to 100 feet over Arkansas River.
[Photo: L. Henry, Dec. 2004]

System expansion and upgrading

Even more ambitious is CATA's program to expand the streetcar line by 2,500 feet (about 760 m) – approximately half a mile (0.8 km) – to link the Clinton Presidential Park and Library and the new global headquarters of the Heifer Project (an international charity) with the River Rail's existing route. Work is already under way to extend the trackage and power system along this new branch.

in addition, two new Gomaco Birney-style double-truck streetcars are on order for the new link. The newer cars will have modern power controllers instead of the revamped old-style controllers on River Rail's three existing streetcars. As Rail Transit Online reported in September 2005, the existing Birneys "have reconditioned units salvaged from Peter Witt cars that were delivered to the Milan, Italy, transit system in the late 1920s." The new controllers will have infinite speed control and simplified operation, and will require less maintenance. The new cars, scheduled to be delivered imminently, will cost a total of $1.735 million – about $870,000 apiece (with a probable economic life of at least 30 years).
[Photo: L. Henry, Dec. 2004]

"Economic Engine That Could"

What's driving this interest in local investment to upgrade and expand the River Rail streetcar system? An article last year in Passenger Transport (6 June 2005) gives some strong clues.

Titled "For Little Rock, River Rail Streetcar System is the 'Economic Engine That Could', the article notes that CATA's River Rail streetcar line "is proving itself as an engine that propels more than just cars. It has electrified the economy and vitality of two downtown areas as well." The article recounts how the streetcar was envisioned as much as an economic catalyst as a mobility improvement:

When the community leaders of central Arkansas envisioned a downtown streetcar line, they wanted to support the revival begun by the voters' approval of "The River Project," which consisted of a tax to build an 18,000-seat arena with only 300 new parking spaces, and to double the size of the Statehouse Convention Center. The streetcar line, in the words of a downtown developer, would "animate" the streets and bring new life to the urban core.

And, says Passenger Transport, "Since its opening on Nov. 1, 2004, the streetcar line has been doing what was envisioned, and then some" – including fulfilling its ridership goals (1,500 to 2,900 a day, at last count). The article points to "two commercial and residential mixed-use developments costing more than $80 million" that have been announced since the River Rail opened; in addition, "existing buildings are undergoing renovation to accommodate new and intensive uses."

The article highlights the example of the 118-year-old Argenta Drug Store in North Little Rock, "one of the oldest continuously operating pharmacies in the nation" and the target of a million-dollar restoration effort. "One of the streetcar objectives identified by the initial feasibility study was to provide a connection to the area's historic past" notes Passenger Transport. The restoration of the Argenta Drug Store will be a showpiece of that goal being met.

Economic boost for merchants, local economy

Other economic benefits flowing from the streetcar investment include "an economic boost to the many food vendors in the River Market hall, and to the restaurants and bars in the River Market District", according to Passenger Transport. The article notes that

During construction, the contractor worked closely with these vendors to minimize the adverse impacts that are attendant to any construction project that disrupts traffic, parking, and pedestrian impacts. The vendors realized that the pain of construction would be worth it once the project opened, and their patience has paid off. The River Market platform is the highest-volume boarding point for the streetcar.

Passengers board River Rail streetcar outside city's River Market shopping area. Streetcar service has played major role in attracting customers to retailers and restaurants, contributing to economic revitalization of area.
[Photo: L. Henry, Dec. 2004]

The article cites more economic and developmental benefits associated with the River Rail:

The streetcar line also enhances many business connections in the area. It directly connects two Chambers of Commerce buildings; bars and restaurants are adding menu items and microbrews named after the system; and a new restaurant called Sidetracks will open soon.

Two apartment developments with platforms on the line, one a restoration and the other new construction, opened before the streetcar line was finished, but the presence of the streetcar figured prominently in the planning, financing, and marketing of the units. Two corporations and one museum have contracted with the transit authority for naming rights of platforms, and more are being considered. Detailed planning is underway for a new $24 million minor league ballpark less than three blocks from the line, and additional development is in the works on at least eight blocks.

The local governments invested less than $4 million to build the $20 million line, and the dividends being paid by the River Rail line are being discovered every day.

River Rail, with ample space in streetcars, becomes a real people-mover during Little Rock's annual River Fest celebration.
[Photo: Ken Ziegenbein]

Unique appeal of streetcars

The Passenger Transport article also shed light on the importance of the connection to the Clinton Library, noting that when library visitors find the streetcar, "they also find five hotels, restaurants, three more museums, a bed and breakfast, and two riverfront parks."

These aspects of the River Rail's impact help drive home a point that is often missed by some transportation planners and decisionmakers: Whether modern or "old-time", a streetcar is not just a bus fitted with steel wheels on rails. Rail services such as streetcars have both a unique appeal to the public, and a unique attraction to developers and others involved with commercial activity, in part because of the permanence and civic investment represented by their fixed facilities. In addition, other features such as electric propulsion, the traffic-calming effects of street tracks and railcars, and easily accessible surface stations enhance the surrounding environment and livability of the urban spaces they serve.

View from half-mile Main Street Bridge segment of River Rail line, soaring over 100 feet above Arkansas River, has proven to be one of the main reasons people have flocked to the streetcar line.
[Photo: Ken Ziegenbein]

Light Rail Now website
Updated 2006/02/17

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