Affordable Streetcar: Little Rock River Rail

January 20, 2009 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

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.

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