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Little Rock - Economic Benefits

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Passenger  Transport Magazine

June 6, 2005

For Little Rock, River Rail Streetcar System Is the 'Economic Engine That Could'

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 Barn.

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 streetcar.

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 parks.

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 eight

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.


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