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A defense of the trolley 

Rethinking this year's winner for Best Misuse of Taxpayer Funds.

THE TROLLEY: Yes, it's a tourist trap, but is that all bad?
  • THE TROLLEY: Yes, it's a tourist trap, but is that all bad?

Like a lot of you, I have had my doubts over whether the River Rail trolley system — a $20-million-dollar-plus project that links Little Rock and North Little Rock by way of rails and a barn full of yellow, bus-sized streetcars — was a good idea. Just like you, I see the trolley cars rumbling by my office at Markham and Scott with nobody but the driver aboard sometimes.

It's easy to see why, then, that the River Rail won our Best of Arkansas award for Best Misuse of Taxpayer Funds, narrowly edging out Bobby Petrino (and oh, how much more interesting would this piece have been if that particular unhappy accident had won?).

I see the places the money could have been spent — where it could still be spent every year. Because I worked up the numbers for the Times a few years back, I know how much it costs to run the trolley system: somewhere over $400 an hour every hour it runs, even after you subtract the amount they make every year on car rentals and rider fares. They're clearly not getting anywhere close to breaking even. Only a fool could deny that, and I like to think of myself as at least a click or two above fool.

Up until a few weeks back, I was actually looking forward to wholeheartedly agreeing with the majority of our balloteers. Then something changed for me. I'll get to that later. 

To be sure, there are lots of critics of the trolley, and I'm not saying they're wrong in the least. A friend of mine from North Little Rock who I deeply respect is one of them. He has worked in violence prevention and youth outreach for over 30 years, and he takes to his Facebook page often to deride the trolley, pointing out areas on his side of the river like Baring Cross and Dark Hollow that could change for the better if the money spent on the trolley was spent there instead. I respect him. He's really been there, and has seen the bloody fruit to be reaped from the seeds of neglect. Too, I know he's got a point. I know he's right.

In the last few weeks, though — ever since somebody painted over the massive public mural of a hibiscus that graced the side of a building on Main Street — I've been thinking. The mural was created with the help of federal funds way back in the summer of 1980, and for no other reason than somebody though it would make Little Rock a more beautiful place to live. I've thought a lot about that idea since somebody slathered a coat of muddy brown over it a few weeks back — about how, if somebody tried to use $100,000 in public money to take on a similar art-for-art's-sake project today, the howls of protest from armchair economists would ring off the Capitol dome. It also got me thinking that a great city isn't great because it does solely what is needed for its people to survive. A great city is great because it takes pains to beautify itself, to make itself lovely, to make itself a place where people don't just live, but want to live.

Yes, we could spend the trolley money elsewhere. Yes, it would cost less to park it except on weekends when ridership is high. It would also cost less to build every public building like a concrete pillbox, to buy battleship gray paint in 100,000-gallon lots and paint every school that color, to forego the little, lovely, expensive details in our libraries and courthouses that make them more beautiful but not a smidgen more useful. Plow the soccer fields in Murray Park into soybean turns. Demolish Robinson Auditorium and put up a convenience store. Throw some stripes on the Big Dam Bridge and roll traffic over that sucker. It would all be cheaper. But would it make us better?

I've spent several hours on the trolley over the past few weeks, gliding through the streets of Little Rock and North Little Rock, growling through the turns, feeling the car sway in the long straightaways. Sometimes, yes, I was the only paying rider. I saw a few people who were legitimate commuters. More often, though, I was on there with people who were clearly tourists: people in shorts and sunglasses, listening and looking around as the conductor called out the sights we were passing; old people with their grandkids; parents with their children; folks from someplace else. I talked to quite a few of them, people who came here to try our city on for awhile and see what we're made of, all of them looking at Little Rock and North Little Rock as the trolley rolled over the bridge with our river below, maybe imagining what it would be like to live under one of our rooftops.

In a few years — if we've got the stomach and the budget for it (both of which seem to be dwindling by the minute in this country) — more track might get laid up Park Hill or down Markham or out to the airport, and the trolley might become a real, viable option for commuters. Until then, though, I'd make the case that even if nobody but tourists ever rides it, even if the cars are often empty, even if it is technically a "waste," the trolley is worth more than money — to our pride, to the way we think about this city we call home, and to the way people from elsewhere see us. Maybe there's a reason beyond simple place that the streetcar in that famous play was named Desire.

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