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A bridge too expensive? 

ROCK ISLAND BRIDGE: Will promise be fulfilled?
  • ROCK ISLAND BRIDGE: Will promise be fulfilled?

The Big Dam Bridge over the Murray Lock and Dam that forms the western link in the River Trail loop has been such a smash hit that bikers and hikers are eager to see the loop completed on the eastern end. They’re wondering when the Clinton Foundation will fulfill its promise to redo the Rock Island Bridge. Will the icon for the bridge to the 21st century be completed before the 22nd?

Jordan Johnson, spokesman for the foundation, had some news to report last week: Clinton Foundation executive director Stephanie Streett and library construction manager Jonathan Semans traveled the first week in December to Pittsburgh to talk to experts about the conversion of a railroad bridge over the Allegheny to pedestrian use (also as part of a trail system). Johnson said it was a crucial step toward realizing the railroad redo.

The Clinton Foundation has been talking about revamping the Rock Island bridge almost since it chose the library site east of Interstate 30 in 1997. The foundation had hoped to have the bridge, which Union Pacific donated to it in 2000, open to the public when the library debuted in November 2004. Little Rock committed $1 million from the bond issue that paid for the library land as its share of the estimated $4 million to $5 million rehab tab.

But as the November 2004 library opening approached, it became obvious the bridge work had been put on the back burner. Despite that, City Manager Bruce Moore assured the Times during the gala opening events that the bridge “will go forward.” Skip Rutherford, then head of the Clinton Foundation, predicted work on the bridge would begin in 2005.

When no progress had been made by December 2005, Rutherford told the Times and the deeply interested Bicycle Association of Central Arkansas that land acquisition in North Little Rock and access problems had held things up a bit. According to the BACA website, Rutherford told the association the foundation was on the verge of having the $5 million funding in hand.

North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays said the city has purchased the property it needed to and obtained easements to allow for the River Trail to hook into the bridge. The city looks forward, he said, to the boon it would bring to downtown development. “We like bridges,” Hays, who came up with the idea to extend the river trail over the dam, said. “Particularly ones that are to the 21st century.”

Foundation spokesman Johnson said original cost estimates had not taken certain engineering difficulties, such as weight bearing distribution on the bridge, into account and were outdated. He noted the unexpectedly high bid the county got for its railroad bridge rehab of the Junction Bridge at the foot of Rock Street: That bid came in at $14.3 million, $10 million in steel alone. The county’s budget: $6 million.

Johnson said he thinks the Rock Island rehab will now cost “roughly well above $10 million.”

So it’s back to the drawing board. “We’re still committed” to rehabbing the bridge, Johnson said, but “before we can form a plan to raise money, we’ve got to make sure [the design] is safe.” The foundation has been raising money through the sale of engraved pavers.

In the nine years since the Clinton Foundation selected its site, the county’s $12 million Big Dam pedestrian/bike bridge was conceived, funded and built.

Ken Gould, the former BACA head who introduced Rutherford at the bicyclists’ December 2005 meeting, signaled a certain amount of impatience. “We’d like to know what has happened,” he said, since “we thought there were strong indications the funding was there.”

Gene Pfeifer, whose land was condemned to build the Clinton Library and who happens to be a biking enthusiast, has also been eager to see the Rock Island project come to fruition. The former president “promised us a bridge to the 21st century, and he won’t even build the bridge he promised us to North Little Rock.”

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