Cautious Optimism for Rebuilding Broadway Bridge

Gretchen Hall, chief of the LRCVB, thinks some drivers may choose to avoid rush hour while the Broadway Bridge is being rebuilt.
Gretchen Hall, chief of the LRCVB, thinks some drivers may choose to avoid rush hour while the Broadway Bridge is being rebuilt. (Karen E. Segrave)

Motorists who regularly drive downtown may dread next year’s replacement of the Broadway Bridge, but Little Rock and transit officials don’t expect the $98.4 million project to cause many problems for area businesses.

“This is an unknown,” said Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan, the planning agency for local area governments. “Everybody is concerned about the unknown. It’s human nature. When Verizon [Arena] was being built, everybody was worried about parking, but then it turned out not to be a problem.”

However, he added, “There are going to be inconveniences to some, specifically rush-hour traffic.”

While some people will decide not to venture across the river because of the construction, “drivers are amazingly adaptable,” McKenzie said.

Demolition of the current bridge, built at a cost of $971,000 and opened in 1923, is scheduled for May 2016, and construction of the new bridge is expected to take six months.

As for traffic congestion, Danny Straessle, public information officer for the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department, said he thinks the department has put out enough information since discussion of the project began in 2011 that commuters will know what to expect.

“There are 25,000 drivers that cross that bridge daily,” Straessle said. “That’s 25,000 cars that have to find another route, and the Main Street Bridge is right next door. Really, the challenge will be for commuters during commute time. Some will have to adjust their schedules when they leave home, and some will have to find which of the available routes will work best for them.”

Little Rock’s River Market District, with its high concentration of restaurants, draws many visitors, but Diana Long, director of River Market operations for the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, echoed McKenzie’s and Straessle’s view that people will find a way to get to the area.

“I don’t think most of the visitors are relying that heavily on the Broadway Bridge to get to the River Market District because there are two other ways,” Long said, referring to the Interstate 30 and Main Street bridges, both of which are closer to the River Market District than the Broadway Bridge.

“I don’t think we have a lot of people coming in who have a 30-minute lunch,” she said. “The people we having coming in have some flexibility. They have an hour and could probably get away with more, if they needed to.”

Gretchen Hall, the president and CEO of the LRCVB, said she “certainly hopes” the bridge’s demolition will not lead to any problems.

“I think people will monitor and adjust,” Hall said. “Some may choose not to come during rush hours.”

As for the project’s effects on large events like conferences and conventions, Hall said the issue had been considered, but that there are not any large events planned that she thinks “will be a major problem.”

“Once they’re here, they’re here,” she said, referring to out-of-state guests. For example, the 2015 World Expo, a taekwondo event held last month by ATA International in Little Rock, brought in more than 20,000 people from numerous states and foreign countries.

Jarod Varner, the executive director of Rock Region Metro (formerly Central Arkansas Transit Authority), said his agency might even experience a slight increase in business because of downtown traffic congestion.

“We do anticipate, because of the congestion, that ridership would increase,” Varner said. However, he noted, any increase would more than likely be “evened out” in a transit agency Catch-22. As congestion increases, ridership will follow, but at the same time, schedule delays are likely and some riders might not see the value of taking the bus, Varner said.

“But I’ve talked to a lot of people who are definitely going to give transits a try,” Varner said, citing a hope that some riders will enjoy being able to get work done as someone else navigates the traffic.

‘Bridge Survival Guide’

Not everyone is so sanguine, however.

“Whenever I look at the Broadway Bridge and the Main Street Bridge, the bulk goes over Broadway,” said Paul Allen, the general manager of the Arkansas Travelers. “I think that’s the habit of people because that’s the way they always go.”

Dickey-Stephens Park, the home of the Travelers, sits at 400 W. Broadway St. in North Little Rock, almost immediately off the Broadway Bridge.

Allen said his team is working on a “Broadway Bridge Survival Guide” to be distributed among fans as the months draw closer to spring.

“It will be reminding our fans of alternate routes, reminding them that there are other ways,” he said. “They need to retrain themselves to drive a different way. As long as we communicate well with our fans, I don’t think it will be that bad.”

Museums downtown, such as the Old State House Museum and the Historic Arkansas Museum, are also preparing information to reassure guests and keep them flowing through their doors.

“Every time something like this happens, we are affected a little bit,” said Bill Worthen, director of the Historic Arkansas Museum, which has the street address of 200 E. Third St. but occupies more than a block. “Because of our situation, being several blocks away from Broadway, we do not anticipate a kind of direct impact as far as crowded streets and lane blockages. But we do expect to have an effort to reassure people who are coming here that there is a way to get them here.”