|Passenger Transport Magazine
June 6, 2005
For Little Rock, River Rail Streetcar System Is the 'Economic Engine
Special to Passenger Transport
The Central Arkansas Transit Authority's brand new
"vintage streetcar" line in Little Rock, River Rail, 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.
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.
Since its opening on Nov. 1, 2004, the streetcar line
has been doing what was envisioned, and then some. In less than seven
months, 100,000 riders have traveled on the two replica streetcars running
on a 2.5-mile track.
In addition, two commercial and residential mixed-use
developments costing more than $80 million have been announced since that
time, and existing buildings are undergoing renovation to accommodate new
and intensive uses. An example is the 118-year-old Argenta Drug Store in
North Little Rock, one of the oldest continuously operating pharmacies in
the nation. A national cable TV show recently contributed to a $1 million
restoration effort for the drugstore, which will be featured on a series of
shows next fall.
One of the streetcar objectives identified by the
initial feasibility study was to provide a connection to the area's historic
past. The restoration of the Argenta Drug Store will be a showpiece of that
goal being met.
Another piece of history on the streetcar line was
literally imported to the area with the arrival last year of the USS
Razorback, the last active submarine from World War II, brought from Turkey
to a mooring on the Arkansas River. During the four-minute ride across the
Main Street Bridge, streetcar passengers have a dramatic view of the sub
while operators give a narration about its history. The sub opens for tours
this spring, and the streetcar is expected to be one of the most popular
ways to get to the Razorback.
CATA recently increased Saturday operating hours for
the streetcar line now that the very popular Farmer's Market has opened for
another season. The streetcars now start at 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays, and on
the first run passengers were waiting at the first stop next to the Trolley
The streetcar has provided an economic boost to the
many food vendors in the River Market hall, and to the restaurants and bars
in the River Market District. 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
The River Market stop is now the closest one to the new
William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Park and Library, but it will not
hold that distinction long. By next summer, CATA will open a 2,500-foot
extension of track that will provide a direct connection to both the library
and the new global headquarters of the Heifer Project, an international
charity. The system has ordered two additional streetcars to arrive in time
for the Phase 2 opening.
Even though there is not yet a direct connection
between the streetcar and the Clinton Library, visitors are finding their
way, and when they find the streetcar, they also find five hotels,
restaurants, three more museums, a bed and breakfast, and two riverfront
The view from the half-mile Main Street Bridge segment,
which soars more than 100 feet above the Arkansas River, has proven to be
one of the main reasons people have flocked to the streetcar line.
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
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.