Little Rock and Central Arkansas have already received national attention in recent years for quality of life projects.  The crown jewel of these projects is undoubtedly the Big Dam Bridge and the Arkansas River Trail system.  Without a doubt these projects and others led Little Rock to be ranked the most livable city.  “Thanks to its location, Little Rock provides plenty of opportunities for hiking, running, cycling, boating, fishing and hunting.” – Kiplinger (Full Text Here)

Today at Metroplan, Pulaski County Judge “Buddy” Villines unveiled plans to continue the progress in Central Arkansas with a grand new multi-use trail to span from downtown Little Rock to Hot Springs.  The Southwest Trail, as it is currently being called, would be 67 miles long and cross through three counties (Pulaski, Saline, and Garland).  The idea is to attain the right away that is a now an abandoned rail line, the Missouri-Pacific.

As Judge Villines discussed before the unveiling of the plans the benefits to the region would be enormous.  Little Rock is fast becoming a bicycle tourism destination given the Arkansas River Trail and the world class mountain biking trails located within short distances.  He mentioned a statistic that the state of Wisconsin receives over 1.5 billion dollars annually in bicycle based tourism business.  Granted Wisconsin has the benefit of having the major bicycle brand Trek located in Waterloo (right outside of Madison) but to be fair Little Rock has Orbea’s US headquarters.  Orbea even promotes Arkansas as a bicycle travel destination on their USA website travel section.  Because bike tourism is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry Little Rock must continue to keep itself on the forefront of development to attract a large share of this growing industry.

In addition to the tourism benefits of the Southwest trail there will also be health benefits for the community and an increase in property values.  Numerous studies have linked greenways such as cycling paths with a positive increase in property values.  The demand for these projects is staggering as the recently completed Two Rivers Park Bridge has seen over 800,000 people cross it since completion (that is 4 times the population of the city of Little Rock).  As Judge Villines also pointed out a new generation of workers are taking into account access to things like trail systems when deciding where to live.  So Little Rock needs to continue to provide such systems to attract the newest generation of skilled laborers.

Hurdles still exist to the project and it will be many years before it comes to fruition but the amount of support has been impressive.  So far all three county judges are in support (Floyd Villines-Pulaski, Lanny Fite-Saline, and Rick Davis-Garland).  Furthermore, the mayor of every city through which the trail will run supports the trail including Little Rock, Shannon Hills, Bauxite, Bryant, Lonsdale, and Hot Springs.  The fact that the mayors of all of these cities and the county judges all agree that this is a project that needs to happen is impressive and a true sign of regional unity and support for the trail.

The project will not be cheap or happen overnight but it is manageable when compared to projects that have already been successful like the Big Dam Bridge.  The estimated cost for the trail is in the 20 million dollar range, which is significantly cheaper than the North West Arkansas Trail system that apparently cost close to 30 million.  The big cost saver for this project is the use of an old rail line for the trail.  By using the old rail line the road bed is effectively already there and will just require some maintenance and paving.  Also, numerous bridges and other fixtures are already in place which helps keep the costs down.  The plan is to use a mixture of private and public funds to construct the trail in segments as funding is available.  Using this method Judge Villines estimates the trail will take 5-10 years to complete.  The full presentation by Mason Ellis can be viewed on local cycling blog JBar Cycling (Southwest Trail Proposal: Little Rock to Hot Springs Bike Trail).