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story.lead_photo.caption The River Rail Trolley cruises down East Second Street in Little Rock on Friday. About a dozen streetcar poles, mostly along East Second Street, will need to be removed and replaced as part of the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s 30 Crossing project. Rock Region Metro has estimated the cost at $450,000. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

The latest version of the $631.7 million 30 Crossing project will require Rock Region Metro to relocate 15 catenary poles used on its downtown streetcar system, mostly along a section of East Second Street in Little Rock.

The cost to relocate the poles and replace and re-string the related catenary wire is an estimated $455,000, a sum Rock Region's interim executive director said the transit agency cannot afford.

"This is a huge financial burden for METRO, which is severely limited by its funding structure when it comes to reserving funding for unexpected, one-time projects such as this," Wanda Crawford said in a letter to the Arkansas Department of Transportation that was dated April 10 but which was released last week.

In the letter that addressed a range of concerns Rock Region has with the project, Crawford formally asked the department to provide the money to relocate the 15 catenary poles, replacing and re-stringing the catenary wire and the associated engineering and design services.

Citing a 2004 right-of-way agreement between the two agencies, the Department of Transportation maintains that it isn't responsible for paying for the work.

The catenary poles hold up the overhead lines used to transmit the electricity to power the trolleys over the tracks along a 3.4-mile route in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.

A final design of the project to upgrade the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock isn't available yet, according to state highway officials.

"The number of catenary guide poles impacted has really yet to be determined," said Danny Straessle, department spokesman.

Crawford said she was working on assumptions presented at a March 14 meeting between Rock Region and department officials.

At the time, department officials said Second, which is a two-lane street, would be reconfigured into a two-way street with four lanes on a two-block section between River Market Avenue and South Cumberland Street. At South Cumberland, Second will become one-way again.

Although Second belongs to the city, the portion that is affected by the project is in the transportation department's right of way associated with Interstate 30. Right of way is the right to make a way over a piece of land. The right of way typically extends beyond the actual roadway. Federal regulations allow states to create a safety zone to ensure there is no interference with using the property for transportation.

For its part, the department said it will follow the policy it has in place for all entities that use its right of way, which are typically utilities. The utilities can locate their equipment, such as pipes, cable and wires, in the department's right of way at no cost. But they are required to pay to relocate the equipment in the event the department needs the right of way.

The department's response to Rock Region's request came in a June 7 letter from Scott Bennett, the department's director. The letter included a 2004 agreement between the department and Rock Region, then known as the Central Arkansas Transit Authority, allowing the transit agency to build, maintain and operate the streetcar system on department right of way.

Among other restrictions, the agreement said the transit agency "agrees to occupy and use the Commission's rights of way solely at its own risk and expense."

In another section, Rock Region agreed to "be solely and exclusively responsible for payment of all cost of the initial and subsequent construction, maintenance, repair, operation, or modification of the Project, including any modifications or repairs to the improvement on the Commission's property."

"This permit states that Rock Region Metro is responsible for all costs associated with the relocation of their facilities on [Arkansas Highway] Commission right of way," Bennett wrote. "This responsibility is consistent with the permits that the department enters into with other parties [such as utility companies] who choose to place their facilities on commission right of way."

But a list of specific rights of way locations in the 2004 agreement didn't include the section of East Second in question. The department later provided a copy of a similar 2002 agreement. Although that agreement addresses the transit agency's use of the Main Street bridge over the Arkansas River between Little Rock and North Little Rock, an exhibit attached to the agreement specifically refers to the department's right of way on East Second.

The agency also provided a map showing the right of way for Interstate 30, which included the two-block section of East Second.

"Those poles are clearly in the right of way," Straessle said.

At Tuesday's monthly meeting of the Rock Region Metro board of directors, where copies of her letter was included in the board's meeting documents, Crawford said she would reserve discussion of the department's response for next month's board meeting.

By then, the transit agency's new boss, Charles Frazier, will be on board. Frazier, a former executive at a Florida transit agency, was hired in May. He replaces Jarod Varner, who led the agency for four years before his departure last August.

This is the second time that Rock Region Metro's streetcar system has faced potential impact from the 30 Crossing project.

Three years ago, a proposed design of an interchange on I-30 to funnel traffic safely in and out of downtown Little Rock wouldn't have been able to accommodate the streetcar route serving the Clinton Presidential Center and the Heifer International headquarters. The route would have to have been relocated or removed or the interchange modified.

In the end, the department came up with another design.

The Metro streetcar system has been operating for 14 years. Its first phase opened in 2004. A second phase that took trolley service to the Clinton Presidential Center opened in 2007.

Civic leaders have said the trolleys have helped spurred revitalization in downtown and fostered economic development. They often are featured in materials promoting the area.

A promotion offering free fares to ride the trolley boosted ridership last summer. But the promotion ended and Rock Region's partners -- mainly the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock and Pulaski County, which provided more than $13 million of the agency's $18 million annual operating budget -- declined to provide the extra funding needed to continue the promotion.

As a result, ridership on the trolleys have declined. More than 15,000 people rode the streetcars through the first five months of the year, a nearly 28 percent decline from the same period a year ago when more than 21,000 rode the streetcars.

Rock Region has said it will pay for a study to look at the future of the streetcar system, including possible ways to expand it.

The dispute over the right of way comes during a 45-day public review of an environmental assessment of the 30 Crossing project. It includes what is called a location-and-design public hearing. Jointly sponsored by the department, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the hearing will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. on July 12 in the Silver City rooms of the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel at 2 Riverfront Place in downtown North Little Rock.

The project is the single largest one the department has ever undertaken.

The preferred plan would widen the 6.7-mile corridor from Interstate 530 in Little Rock to Interstate 40 in North Little Rock to 10 lanes from six and replace the bridge over the Arkansas River.

Central Arkansas planners had long called for an overhaul of the congested corridor, which features the convergence of six major highways in the space of fewer than 7 miles. The I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River, which dates to the late 1950s and was built at a cost of $5.5 million, carries 124,000 vehicles daily.

The latest design for the 10-lane alternative features four lanes that would be more like city streets, with ramps to lower speeds, narrower lanes, traffic signals and other features that will, officials say, allow traffic moving on or off I-30 to safely interact with pedestrians and other non-interstate traffic.

The 10-lane alternative has been referred to as a mix of six main through lanes with four collector-distributor lanes. The latter are separated by a wall from the main lanes, have slower speeds and allow traffic traveling between Little Rock and North Little Rock to cross the bridge without entering the main interstate lanes.

The project also includes improvements to the section of I-40 between MacArthur Drive and U.S. 67/167 in North Little Rock and a new interchange in Little Rock to replace the one at Cantrell Road and I-30. Removal of the Cantrell/I-30 interchange would create what city officials envision as a 17-acre park.

A map showing the disputed trolley area.

A Section on 06/25/2018

Print Headline: Project worries transit agency; Can’t afford to move LR streetcar poles, it tells state

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  • Quackenfuss
    June 25, 2018 at 9:29 a.m.

    How about we ditch this carnival ride and build a true intracity rail transit system. Start with a line from downtown to Chenal, then add lines from downtown to SWLR, Sherwood, Jacsonville, Rose City and the Heights. Long range, build intra-city to Conway, Cabot, Pine Bluff and Benton. Unify Metro Little Rock with a real urban transit system. Lay it out as a 25 year plan if you have to. Every city in the United States that has managed true urban growth has built a good, urban rail transit system. It isn't cheap and it isn't quick, but it is a true infrastructure improvement that would pay far more benefits than this "expanded" corridor that is being considered. When paired with a good bus system it is possible for anyone to live in the area without having to depend on a car. I'm not against cars, but it's just that they eventually choke cities.

  • drs01
    June 25, 2018 at 10:12 a.m.

    Several years ago former MetroPlan director Jim Mckenzie admitted that this yellow trolley was NOT a transportation system, but a tourist attraction. Yet, money was spent on a study/proposal to expand the service south to Roosevelt Road and north to Park Hill. Here again, another attempt to use this trolley to attract business development along the route to the benefit of a small portion of our city.
    Ridership is down and no one uses it as a means of transportation. Downtown workers can't use it to reach a lunch HOUR location and still have a job when they are late to return.
    This $20 million project plus the yearly operating expenses has benefited only one select group of our citizens......businesses in the downtown metro areas of LR/NLR and the LR/NLR tourist bureaus. So, let's collect the money needed from them, especially the tourist (Advertising/Promotions) bureaus who are fat with cash.
    Further more, the expense of changing CATA's name to Rock Region Metro hasn't done much to provide a transportation system for those citizens who need or want to use it.
    We can't continue to build roadways that enable our workforce to retreat from the city with their paychecks. We must give them reasons to stay here. Transportation systems, quality school choices, and private sector jobs are three.

  • Razrbak
    June 25, 2018 at 12:08 p.m.

    We can thank last term mayor Mark Stodola for this. This is just the tip of iceberg.

  • DoubleBlind
    June 25, 2018 at 12:18 p.m.

    I completely agree with Quack, but it will never happen. The TD still thinks with it’s ‘Highway Dept’ brain. It can’t fathom - and won’t tolerate - any mode of transport that doesn’t support its lame, lazy and BACKWARD highway-centric agenda.

  • Libertarian
    June 25, 2018 at 1 p.m.

    $857 for each rider of the trolley last year?! What a boondoggle. The city can't keep you from being mugged down town, but we'll subsidize your trolley ride!

    What a rip off.

  • Libertarian
    June 25, 2018 at 1:08 p.m.

    Time to pull the plug on this rip off agency. Rock Region Metro had 14 years to become viable and self sufficient.

  • DoubleBlind
    June 25, 2018 at 1:18 p.m.

    Lib - You might consider changing your screen name since you clearly don’t understand what are actual Libertarian ideals. No rinky dink standalone entity outside of the hwy dept - and without hwy dept level funding - was ever going to make a go of actual ‘mass transit,’ regardless of good intentions. Yet you don’t place any similar responsibility on the hwy dept for advancing mass transit and apparently suppport their $650M ‘highway to nowhere’ plan.

  • hah406
    June 25, 2018 at 1:47 p.m.

    Clearly the streetcar system is a feature aimed at tourists in the downtown area and not much more. That does not make it a bad thing, but it should make us all consider the costs associated with it. Having lived in cities with much more robust public transportation systems (Chicago, Atlanta, Berlin) I would love to see more intra-city and inter-city rail. However, the LR metro area simply does not have enough population density to support it. The metro population would probably need to quadruple to begin to make it cost-effective.

  • Libertarian
    June 25, 2018 at 5:42 p.m.

    Yes, Chris, I am well aware of the Libertarian philosophy, and have been for some decades now. #1 of which is that the businesses that benefit from this boondoggle should be the ones to pay for it. If it is to be a public transit, then they should have created a special tax district to pay for the building and up keep instead of making tens of thousands of citizens who never use it or benefit from it foot the bill. If it were a good idea to begin with, a private entity would have stepped forward and implemented it with private funds. But since it's losing over $850 PER RIDER no one in their right mind would finance it.

    What do you do when you have a product no one wants to buy? You get the government to buy it from you.

  • NoUserName
    June 25, 2018 at 6:15 p.m.

    Central Arkansas simply doesn't have the population for worthwhile mass transit. A nice idea, sure. But it would be a complete waste. And that's also true geographically. When it takes 2 hours to go 10 miles in a highly populated city, it makes sense. When I can drive halfway across the state in an hour, umm, no. A rail is NEVER going to be convenient to go from WLR to downtown when in the worst of times it takes 15-20 minutes by car.