The first vision for the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center included the 19th-century Rock Island Railroad Bridge transformed into a pedestrian bridge. That bridge has been pushed further into the 21st century, as work on the center overtook priorities.
Landscaping of the Presidential Park, which would include access to the bridge and a playground, has been put on hold since the grounds will be trampled by the hordes of press and dignitaries on hand for the library opening Nov. 18. Security concerns have been raised. And bridge planners would like a better idea of what might someday be on the North Little Rock end of the bridge, which is undeveloped now.
But the bridge will be built. “It will go forward,” Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore says. “Next year,” Clinton Foundation President Skip Rutherford says. And when it’s open, “I bet 80 percent of the people will walk halfway out on that bridge” after their visit to the library, downtown real estate developer Rett Tucker says.
The $5 million rehab would create a biking-walking path on the bridge. Because the central span of the bridge must be left in a raised position for river traffic, elevators and ramps are being considered for entries on both ends. Early plans called for terraces on either side of the bridge at its midpoint to provide a place to rest and take in the view. Current thinking, Rutherford said recently, is that the bridge should be sealed, rather than painted, to keep its rusty red color. Little Rock is to pick up $1 million of the construction tab; the Clinton Foundation is to pick up the rest.
So when will work on the pedestrian bridge begin?
North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays said he’s “ready for it to happen.” North Little Rock’s new master plan — which includes a new ballpark on the north shore upriver — doesn’t make specific recommendations on how North Little Rock should develop the land around the Rock Island bridge, but Hays expects it will be a mix of business and residential. He said he would work with Rutherford on what he called “a gender-neutral design” for the North Little Rock end. Once complete, the bridge should inspire development, Hays said.
The railroad tracks on the North Little Rock side of the river were severed when the overpass they traveled was torn down last year, and the bridge now ends abruptly many feet in the air. Some kind of ramp will have to be built to bring bridge pedestrians back down to earth.
Because the bridge’s south end is close to the Clinton Center and archives, “security concerns” have been raised, Little Rock’s city manager Moore said. However, he does not believe access to the bridge from the park will be blocked.
At one point, before Clinton took office, bridge owner Union Pacific planned to dismantle the bridge and move the lift span to another city. That was going to cost around $5 million, and Union Pacific agreed to donate the bridge — which the Corps of Engineers was demanding be taken down — to the Clinton Foundation.
When renovation is complete, the Rock Island Pedestrian Bridge will form the eastern link in the 14-mile hiking-biking Arkansas River Trail looping the Little Rock and North Little Rock riverfronts. The western river crossing will be on a bridge over the Murray Lock and Dam, a $9.7 million, mostly federally-funded project already begun.