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The Clinton Bridge opens 

The span will close the loop of the 14-mile River Trail.

click to enlarge FROM VISION TO VIEW: Debbie Shock, facilities manager and "problem solver" on the Clinton bridge. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • FROM VISION TO VIEW: Debbie Shock, facilities manager and "problem solver" on the Clinton bridge.

On Sunday, the decade-old River Trail will finally close its loop, when the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge opens to the public. The importance to Little Rock — in giving the city an identity and giving the people one of the best bike trails in the country — is nearly inestimable.

On Friday, former President Bill Clinton and other dignitaries will gather at 11 a.m. at the Clinton Presidential Park to dedicate the transformed Rock Island railroad crossing, now a graceful walkway/bikeway over the Arkansas River, and parkside nature walk that is the Bill Clark Wetlands.

Little Rock has waited, with some impatience, seven years for the opening of the bridge, designated as the eastern closure of the River Trail bike loop since before the opening of the Clinton Center in November 2004.

The wait will be forgotten now that the bridge is open. A wide and smoothly curving ramp leads from the Clinton Center's circular entryway to the spacious bridge, framed in 19th century crossbeams and lit by 60 large pendant 21st century LED lights. Little Rock's skyline is to the west, and, at the former president's request, a border of yellow chrysanthemums in specially designed aluminum flower beds line the railings on either side.

The Clinton bridge is the property of the city, which contributed $1 million to the project. The William Jefferson Clinton Foundation contributed another $4 million, including about 4,000 private donors, whose names are inscribed on the bridge. Another $4.5 million came from federal stimulus and Economic Development Administration grants and Pulaski County and North Little Rock invested $1 million.

Debbie Shock, the director of operations and facilities for the Clinton Center who has conducted an orchestra of civil, structural and electrical engineers, architects and contractors, some working from a barge in the Arkansas River, gave the Times a tour of the bridge last week and a short primer on its construction. Now a tangible symbol of Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st century" inaugural reference, the railroad bridge, first owned by Choctaw, was once a bridge to the 20th century, its construction starting in 1899. Turning the 1,600-foot-long bridge into a pedestrian overpass required moving huge counterweights that once allowed the bridge to lift for river traffic, building new crossbeams to look like the old, and pouring a 10-inch-thick concrete surface where trains once rolled. Mobley Contractors, "didn't even bat an eye," Shock said, when it came to pouring the span's 3,450 tons of concrete, which a parade of pumper trucks pumped up to the bridge through a long steel and rubber pipe, at just the right consistency. "I've done a whole lot of concrete," Shock, who once oversaw the pouring of concrete on a runway at Denver International, "but nothing like this."

The bridge also has six solar navigational lights for river traffic; at night, it will beam a welcome to planes landing at Little Rock National Airport to the east. It also has electrical outlets across its span to accommodate special events.

The hikers and bikers won't be thinking about all that as they cross the bridge, 17 and a half feet wide along the lift span, to North Little Rock's Riverfront Park. With the bridge open, bikers can complete a 14-mile loop in Little Rock and North Little Rock along the Arkansas River as well as detour to the trail's new offshoot, the Two Rivers Bridge to Two Rivers Park upstream from the eastern river crossing, the Big Dam Bridge.

While it was more expensive, building ramps to the bridge — a design Shock and others sought from the beginning — means the Clinton bridge won't be plagued with the Junction Bridge's major problem — elevators that don't work and are too dirty to want to ride in anyway. But what about the pigeons? Shock said the Clinton bridge will be swept daily and power-washed weekly of unwelcome droppings from avian life that perches on the bridge beams overhead.

Looking down from the bridge, Shock — a former junior high science teacher who has been with the Clinton Center since before its construction and who foundation people describe as chief "problem solver" — pointed out enormous turtles swimming in the slow backwater that has been cleaned up and replanted as the Clark wetlands. Children who aren't interested in skylines will love the wildlife they see below, she said. Wooden walkways, a viewing platform and a pavilion line the 13-acre marsh, which also serves as an outdoor environmental classroom, its lessons about birds and fish and how trash carelessly thrown down into Little Rock's sewers enters the river here. The wetland park is a collaboration of the city, Audubon Arkansas, the state Game and Fish Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Natural Resources Commission, the Clinton School of Public Service, the Clinton Foundation and the City Parks Conservancy. It honors William E. Clark, head of the CDI construction firm that built the presidential library.

After Friday's dedication, the bridge will be open to the public until 2 p.m. It will be closed on Oct. 1 and reopen to the public Sunday, Oct. 2.

Shock, whose site-wide projects range from making the Clinton School for Public Service more energy-efficient to designing the sandblast method for getting the names onto the bridge, heaped praise on all who were involved with the bridge: lead architect Polk Stanley Wilcox and architect Wallace Carradine, consulting engineers McClelland, structural engineer Kenneth Jones and Associates, Little Rock steel fabricators AFCO, general contractor Mobley, C and F steel and Clark Contractors. "All had a vital role," she said.

Clinton anniversary schedule

You might have gotten a call from James Carville this week inviting you to Saturday's anniversary celebration of the day in 1991 that then-Gov. Bill Clinton announced he was running for president. Carville said he'll see you there.

The 20th anniversary celebration is one of several events after the bridge dedication marking Arkansas's presidential claim to fame.

First up, on Friday, is the dedication of the Clinton Presidential Park bridge and the Bill Clark Wetlands, starting at 11 a.m. President Clinton will be joined by Gov. Mike Beebe and other community leaders for the ceremony.

At sundown on Friday night, "Movies in the Park" in Riverfront Park will show "The War Room," the documentary that followed the strategic players of the '92 Clinton presidential campaign.

The anniversary event starts at 4 p.m. Saturday on the grounds of the Old State House, where then-Gov. Clinton announced he would run for president in October 1991.

At noon on Monday, Oct. 3, former White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty, consultant Bev Lindsey and former state Treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher will serve on a panel at the Old State House for a noon event titled "Building a Community of Hope that Inspires the World: Behind the Scenes at Clinton's '91 Announcement." The event is free but reservations are required; reserve at publicprograms@clintonschooluasys.edu or 683-5239.

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