Metroplan embarked on an ambitious endeavor in 2020 when it announced a $55 million investment in a regional pathway network in central Arkansas. The money will help build more than 170 miles of planned multi-use paths connecting Faulkner, Lonoke, Pulaski and Saline counties. To put that in perspective, the hugely successful Razorback Regional Greenway, which extends from Fayetteville to Bella Vista, is approximately 40 miles.
Metroplan is the planning organization that determines needs and funding priorities for federal transportation investments in Little Rock and surrounding areas. The multi-million dollar commitment at the time represented about half of the agency’s federal Surface Transportation Block Grant funding over 10 years.
Tab Townsell, executive director of Metroplan, said a 2019 trip to the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, South Carolina, was a revelation for the agency he leads. The Metroplan Board of Directors biked the 22-mile trail, toured the area and met with local leaders. They returned to Arkansas with a vision.
“That trip sealed the idea that we could do this too, but do it regionally, with less stress on local budgets,” Townsell said.
Smaller cities near the Swamp Rabbit Trail began asking for more local connections to the greenway after its construction. The same pattern followed the completion of the Razorback Regional Greenway, and Townsell hopes the central Arkansas project will spark a similar culture shift.
“I hope this greenway system will motivate citizens to support more active transportation options in each city in our region,” he said.
Metroplan selected Crafton Tull to lead a 15-month process beginning in May of 2021 to create the master plan for the new regional pathway system. Planners at Crafton Tull and Toole Design identified routes, established design criteria and prioritized investments based on public input.
The Central Arkansas Regional Greenways Master Plan outlines five greenway corridors connecting the region’s center to its fringes. Three of these extend out to Conway, Ward and Lonoke. A fourth creates a continuous east-west route through Little Rock. Lastly, the Southwest Trail is a corridor already in development that extends through Benton into Hot Springs National Park.
The master plan incorporates three desired outcomes that help inform its approach: transportation, quality of life and economic development.
As part of the plan, a survey asked central Arkansas residents how they would use a regional pathway network. About 53% said they would use it for everyday trips, including to and from work or school. However, half of all survey respondents said they only feel safe on dedicated trail infrastructure or residential streets, a result consistent with national research findings.
Public input pointed to the need for more dedicated, off-road bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure as a transportation mode, not just for recreational use. The new pathway network gives residents viable alternatives to driving for local trips. The plan incorporates destination-oriented connections that link residential neighborhoods to downtowns, educational facilities and commercial areas. For example, a new proposed pathway would connect the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to downtown Little Rock and to population centers in west Little Rock.
Quality of Life
The regional pathway network encourages residents and visitors to take advantage of the Natural State’s beauty. It provides safe and sustainable opportunities to spend time with family, friends, pets and neighbors in a way that benefits community health.
A section of the proposed northern pathway would follow the scenic White Oak Bayou along the route connecting the Arkansas River Trail in North Little Rock to existing trails at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and beyond.
The new connections can boost local restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, breweries and bike shops. Events including bike rides and foot races draw visitors from across the country, and this pathway network will allow more central Arkansas communities to plan and host their own. The increase in economic activity can strengthen the tax base and potentially transform underdeveloped areas.
Vital Connections, Lasting Impact
The proposed routes, which are available for public comment through an interactive map at centralarkgreenways.com, connect communities to destinations in every direction along the 15.6-mile Arkansas River Trail loop.
The vote two years ago by the Metroplan Board of Directors to fund the greenways demonstrates a deeply held belief in the importance of a robust bicycle and pedestrian network. Regional and local leaders embraced the project not as a luxury, but as a critical piece of modern transportation infrastructure.
Investment in active transportation can spark lasting, transformational change. This shared conviction serves as the foundation for the master plan and will guide the project today and in the years ahead through engineering and construction.