Weather put kink in plans for bridge

LR’s Clinton park span to open Oct. 2

The Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, formerly the Rock Island Bridge, is seen Sunday from North Little Rock. The abandoned rail crossing was converted into a pedestrian and bicycle path over the Arkansas River.
The Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, formerly the Rock Island Bridge, is seen Sunday from North Little Rock. The abandoned rail crossing was converted into a pedestrian and bicycle path over the Arkansas River.

— Originally set for a summer opening, the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge in downtown Little Rock will instead open Oct. 2 when former President Bill Clinton will be in town for private festivities celebrating the 20th anniversary of announcing his first bid for the White House.

The railroad span’s makeover was initially part of the presidential center’s master plan but was cut because costs for the project were higher than expected. In the years after the center’s opening, trail enthusiasts created the Build Our Bridge website to pressure the city to follow through with the 2001 plan to turn the abandoned rail crossing into a pedestrian and bicycle path over the Arkansas River.

Fundraising also continued until there was enough to start construction — $2.5 million in federal stimulus dollars capped off a capital campaign that also received $1 million from the city and $2 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. The rest of the $10.5 million price tag was picked up by the Clinton Foundation or paid for with private donations and $750,000 from North Little Rock, Clinton Foundation spokesman Jordan Johnson said.

The former Rock Island Bridge will serve as another connector in the 14-mile Arkansas River Trail loop that already includes the Big Dam Bridge crossing in west Little Rock and the Junction Bridge, another former railroad bridge converted for pedestrian and bicycle use a few blocks west of the presidential bridge.

All those involved in making the latest crossing a reality, including Clinton, are to gather at the bridge Sept. 30 for a dedication. While the dedication ceremony will be open to the public, the bridge won’t open officially until Oct. 2.

Johnson said groups had rented parts of the surrounding park months in advance, and bridge organizers didn’t want to interfere with those events by opening the bridge Oct. 1.

The agreement with Mobley Contractors of Morrilton called for the bridge to be finished by the end of July, but icy winter weather delayed the project, Johnson said.

Just west of the bridge, the Bill Clark Wetlands also will open over the Oct. 2 weekend.

That $2 million project is aimed at educating people about wetlands as well as illustrating how trash tossed blocks away can eventually end up in the Arkansas River.

The backwater no longer resembles the trash jungle it once was when it was littered with discarded fast-food containers, soft-drink cans, plastic bags and other debris.

Instead, concrete pathways wind through the newly created wetlands and marshes. A litter trap will show what flows out of city storm drains into the water, and a bat box has been set up to provide the flying creatures another option for roosting.

Workers broke ground on the project last year, but rain followed by high summer temperatures delayed the project’s completion.

The weather “has not been cooperative so far,” said Eric Petty, operations manager for Little Rock Public Works, which is overseeing the project.

The river rose 13 feet after spring rains, and then tripledigit heat delayed the planting of native species grown in a greenhouse.

“Now that’s passed, hopefully we can finish this thing,” Petty said.

The city received $353,000 in federal stimulus dollars for this project, but the majority of the funds came from donations to the city and the City Parks Conservancy in the name of William E. Clark, a Little Rock contractor whose firm CDI built the Clinton Presidential Center. Clark died in 2007.

City officials expect that a boardwalk part of the project will end up underwater several times a year when river levels rise.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the backwater in the late 1960s during the McClellan-Kerr channelization project, which made the river deeper and wide enough to support barge traffic. The stone revetment, which helped straighten out the channel and protect the riverbank from erosion, isn’t enough to hold back rising floodwaters.

A dedication ceremony scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Sept. 30 will cover both the bridge and the wetlands, Johnson said.

Arkansas, Pages 7 on 08/29/2011