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Affordable Streetcar: Little Rock River Rail

The River Rail Streetcar is a project of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CAT). The 3 mile line connects together the downtown's of Little Rock and North Little Rock, providing direct access to the convention center and historic River Market area in downtown Little Rock, the new sports arena across the Arkansas River in downtown North Little Rock, and the Clinton Library.

Published January 20, 2009 in Transit      6 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The line utilizes city streets, operating in mixed traffic, except on the bridge over the Arkansas River, which features an exclusive lane for the trolleys. The round-trip fare is .50 cents, with seniors .25 cents and children under five free. An all-day pass is available for $2.00.

The River Rail streetcar is a component of a larger redevelopment effort in both the Little Rock and North Little Rock downtown's. The two cities are situated on opposite sides of the Arkansas River, and both have relatively small populations.  Little Rock has a population of 183,000 and North Little Rock just 60,000, with the population of the greater Little Rock area being 569,000. Other major projects in the area include the newly expanded convention center, the redeveloped River Market area, a new central library, the Clinton Presidential Library, and on the North Little Rock side of the river, the new Alltel Arena and the new ballpark. The arena is an 18,000 seat sports and entertainment facility and hosts both an arena football league team and the U of A basketball team.

The new line provides an important circulator function between the two downtowns, linking together the area's major attractions while encouraging tourism and enhancing economic development efforts. Phase 1 cost $19.6 million, including design, construction management, three vehicles and the maintenance building. Eighty percent of the funding came from Federal sources ranging from New Starts Rail funds, flex STP funds, and High Priority funds from TEA 21. Local funds were provided by Pulaski County, Little Rock and North Little Rock. CAT is also offering to selling naming rights for the system, cars and stations. Annual operating costs are estimated at $500,000.

Phase 1 opened in  November 2004, connecting the two Downtowns. Phase 2 opened in February 2007 and added the half-mile extension to the Clinton Presidential Library site and two more trolleys. Phase 2 cost $7.6 million dollars. Longer range plans include a possible 3 mile extension to Little Rock National Airport.


Simple Design = Low Costs: Creating an affordable streetcar line

1. Heritage vs. Modern

The Little Rock system is a heritage streetcar system.  Heritage systems use original vintage or replicas of historic streetcars.  Since the streetcars cost a fraction of their modern counterparts, this helps reduce the overall start up cost of the project.  While roads need to be widened to increase capacity, the streetcar system's capacity could be enhanced by adding additional cars or more expensive modern cars at a later date. 

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2. Don't Double track entire line

Although the Little Rock system incorporates loops (couplets), a single bi-directional line connects them.  There is a slim chance that once completed, the initial line will immediately run at full capacity.  Thus, there is little need to initially invest in a complete double tracked system.  By not immediately double tracking, a longer system serving more neighborhoods for the same price can be established.

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3. Small Fleet

Invest small and work your way up.  The Little Rock line is served by Gomaco replica trolleys.  Three cars were purchased for operation of the initial phase, and two additional cars provided as part of the phase 2 line extension.  As the system grows, additional cars will be purchased.

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4. Innovative bridge crossing

The Little Rock system must cross the Arkansas River to link Little Rock with North Little Rock.  Instead of constructing a new streetcar-only bridge, the Little Rock river crossing was constructed on the top of an existing bridge.  To accommodate the single track, a regular lane was dedicated to the streetcar.  The Park Street viaduct offers Jacksonville the same opportunity to help minimize the cost of crossing the FEC tracks and McCoys Creek.

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5. "Bulge-Out" Streetcar stops

Minimalistic station/stop design is key to keeping costs low.  The Little Rock system incorporates a series of "bulge-outs" from the sidewalks for stops.  River Rail markers and a map are the only amenity at many of these stops.

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How did this get in here? 

Image by whalt at  Thought of the Day: The PCT (Potato Chip Truck Trolley) does not stimulate redevelopment and is simply a gimmick.


The Trolley Barn

Central Arkansas Transit Authority's board of directors recently approved a design plan to double the storage capacity of the River Rail streetcar barn, providing space for up to eight trolleys.

The 4,860-sq.-ft. addition on the south side of the existing 9,200-sq.-ft. building will have a brick facade facing Main Street to match the north side, softening the mostly metal structure’s industrial appearance. 

The budget for the project is $500,000, all of it from federal grants.

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Transit Oriented Development

Despite having a streetcar line without all the bells and whistles, the Little Rock system has proven to be a successful stimulator of transit oriented development.  Since operation began in 2004, River Rail has stimulated $400 million worth of development within two blocks of the initial alignment.

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Tale of the Tape

Little Rock River Rail

Initial Length: 2.5 miles

Current length: 3.4 miles

Initial capital cost: $20.5 million

Total capital cost: $28 million

Average capital cost per track mile: $8.3 million

Frequency of service: 25 minute headways

Operating budget: $650,0000 (2007)


JTA Streetcar Estimate

Proposed Initial Length: 4.3 to 4.8 miles

Estimated Total capital cost: $65 to $85 million

Average capital cost per track mile: $15 to $17.5 million

Frequency of service: N/A

Operating budget: N/A

These numbers suggest we have some fat that we can trim.

Every rail system must be properly developed for the community it will serve.  While all of these suggestions may or may not be incorporated into a Jacksonville plan, this is living proof that rail can be constructed at an affordable price with a minimalist, yet attractive, design approach.

Article by Ennis Davis



January 20, 2009, 09:39:14 AM
Excellent and educational piece - thanks E.D.

Can someone please, *please* stick this up on the doors and windows of the various peoples' offices in City Hall and JTA?  Like, wallpaper the place with this?  

With no disrespect to our peer city(ies), how hard can this be?  Time and time again we've seen this sort of thing brought to fruition with not a ton of money and just a little intestinal fortitude of civic leaders.  The Peytonistas and JTA (or maybe they're all one and the same?) need to wake up and pay attention.


January 20, 2009, 11:07:51 AM
I believe the costs that are in the JTA report are based on national averages. It doesn't mean that it will actually costs that much per mile to build the system for Jacksonville. The next phase of the study should help to better break down the costs and route miles. Don't get bent all out of shape just yet. We are still at the beginning here. I think the folks at JTA are very much aware of what is on this site and what has/is occured/occuring around the country.


January 20, 2009, 02:11:38 PM

Why couplets or loops are NOT NEEDED with streetcars. They have two ends! The controller handle is the "key" to the car. Simply reach the end of the line - and end of the wire and stop. Get out and lower the trolley pole on the former "rear" of the car, and raise the other pole to the new rear of the car. Jump back on remove your controller handle walk to the other end of the car - while flipping the seat backs over to face the other way. Get to the other end attach handle, stomp bell peddle and off you go... total about 1-2 minutes.

Got to stick my face into this one.

First: FSUJAX is correct, these are simply early numbers from averages. When one figures in the streetcars in Pittsburgh and Boston both operate in Subways (at least in part) you can see how easy the average could soar as a ball park cost. It is also true that we've just started, but it shouldn't be this way. We could have been the FIRST city with a "Heritage Streetcar". We have the funds to self finance this whole project and Mayor Peyton wants to steal it for more sewer grates on Gate and Zoo Parkways. The Council could single handedly turn the tide and bring this unique system to Jacksonville within 2-3 years.

LITTLE ROCK: is about the closest thing to a turn-key Jacksonville plan as I have seen anywhere. The river in downtown is also a shipping channel and port and almost identical in size to the St. Johns!

I have ridden the entire system and have nothing but praise for it. The equal to "WATER STREET" is bursting at the seams with every kind of Little Rock-New Orleans style restaurant, hotel and club or park. This is an amazing transformation for a downtown that looked like the worst of old Durkeeville just a few years before streetcars.

The Choice of Equipment, Again, right on the "correct" due to large capacity, modern electronics and electrical, which equates to everything a modern bus or streetcar offers in a classic body. "G Force acceleration", quick brakes, back up to max speed as fast as a sports car. Air Conditioning, Heat, ADA lifts hidden in the stairwells so they don't distract from appearence, yet quickly and quietly serve the customers.
The classic Cyclops headlights are brilliant and seem to scream "TRAIN IS COMING" better then the little anemic headlights on our Skyway.

The only downside to Gomoco Streetcars is the "brand new" heritage streetcars are sitting on trucks from a defunct Italian Tram line that dates to the 1920's or before. I see this as sort of deceptive, as several systems including Tampa have had troubles with the ancient components. EDWARDS CAR COMPANY and BROOKVILLE EQUIPMENT build heritage streetcars or remanufacture historic streetcar ruins with all new parts.

It doesn't get much easier then this. Hold this image next to a Tri-Rail construction photo, a Los Angeles Subway (Red Line) photo, or our own Skyway construction photos... and one of the JTA BRT greats called US "flying monkeys" in a public meeting.

Track is smooth, but the heavy large cars do much to make for a better ride. Anyone going to Dallas, Memphis or Tampa, try the large 8 wheeled cars, then hunt down and ride the tiny 4-wheeled "one man cars" --- the truth of ride quality will smack your butt!

Only one error of a sorts in the article, that's the track isn't all in the street or side of the street. At least half of the North Little Rock section is in the middle of the biggest sidewalk this side of Bogota. Go back and check those photos, at least two show the sidewalk running.

Of course the worst part about streetcars and light rail is: "The public hates them, they're out there campaigning to STOP the light rail..." MIKE MILLER, in a public statement about BRT -vs- LIGHT RAIL/STREETCAR, in Charlotte, a small vocal group of highway addicts DID get it to a vote and the LIGHT RAIL won over BRT plans by a landslide margin of around 80% PRO STREETCAR. 

Stations are VERY simple affairs, BUT they do match the neighborhoods. A couple even have CLEAN RESTROOMS and water fountains. Taken to the next level - since they are next to city parks or attractions, such a station should have a lease space for a "stand and snack" type streetcar lunch stand, or gift shop.

The shop is beautiful inside, but ugly as hell outside. What they are now doing is the equal of attaching a large metal shop building, to a beautiful, welcoming entry and show place. It's right off the freeway in North Little Rock and has a huge parking lot, but it's away from any other activity centers. When their done, they'll have a complex that will look like SAX SEAFOOD RESTAURANT BUILDING downtown JAX - Attached to a large metal barn. A great chance at museum attraction.



January 20, 2009, 09:17:34 PM
How's the ridership on the Little Rock Line?  How much of the O&M costs are offset by fare revenue?


January 21, 2010, 02:59:18 PM
Siemens Light Rail/ Streetcar on display in Atlanta tomorrow at Centennial Olympic Park.
Apparently vehicle is being taken to Charlotte.
The Beltline folks and some other groups arranged this.
I'll try and find out more.


January 21, 2010, 03:02:06 PM
Correction: MARTA arranged the show.
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