The cost of the streetcar project is one of the reasons that have made this project so interesting. “We built it for eight million a mile including the barn, the three cars, the design — everything. If you look around the country, I’m not saying anything bad about it,” Jones emphasizes, “but everything else is 20 to 30 million a mile.”
He continues, “There were just a lot of good factors, a good combination of things that let us do it that cheaply.” The lines utilize city streets, operating in mixed traffic for a majority of the route. The section on the Main Street Bridge is the only exclusive lane. Jones summarizes, “You don’t have to rebuild the entire city to do this. Keep it cheap and get it out there,” he says smiling. “We were really lucky to be able to do that.
“Nobody, including me, for awhile there thought we could pull this off and the fact that we built it, built it well and it’s operating as a success has elevated our own image here. We haven’t done any polling on that but you just know it,” Jones says. “That will sooner or later, when it gets back to the voters, that will pay off I think.”
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
As Phase 2 comes close to finish, it is still to be determined where Phases 3 and 4 will take the streetcars. The streetcar operation involves Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County and for Phase 1 they paid for the cost equally. Phase 2 is located in Little Rock. Jones says, “North Little Rock’s paying 25 percent of the local share and the county’s going to pay 1/3 of everything so the difference, Little Rock’s paying 41 and 2/3rds percent.
“North Little Rock has the option for Phase 3 and with the same funding arrangements in reverse.” When I ask about where Phase 3 will take the streetcar Jones says with a pause, “Phase 3 is, who knows?” quickly adding with a cunning smile, “We can pick it today.” Back to business he adds, “The mayor has really not decided where he wants to put Phase 3. He’s got quite a few options.”
Two options Jones mentions were another line on the Main Street Bridge or down to some city-owned vacant land that the city is considering for various uses including a possible aquarium. He adds, “If nothing else happens, I’d like to see them make the bridge two ways.” When the current line went on the bridge, it replaced a sidewalk and the median cap was changed. “In effect we stole a lane width and the cars didn’t know it,” he explains. “To do it in the other direction, it’s going to be hard to do without taking a lane or putting some added pavement on top of the bridge which the bridge engineers don’t want to let that happen.”
Jones thought the streetcar should have gone down Main Street for Phase 1. He says that it just may happen for Phase 4. “I think there was only me and one architect that felt it needed to go down Main Street. Everyone else was like no, it has to go to River Market.” He adds with a smile, “So we lost that argument.” Perhaps not permanently lost as he adds, “Now everyone’s saying yeah, we need to go down to Main Street. That’s really where some private money is finally arriving at last.”
Jones mentions another option that city officials have suggested, “There’s a lot of political will to take it to the airport.” He explains, “What I try to tell them going from the streetcar downtown — which was a big enough task for us — to building a line to the airport, it’s like going from the Minors to the Majors. Dealing with the airport, being on the airport grounds,” he pauses, “things start getting real expensive real quick.” He adds, “There’s no more $8 million a mile. Going to the airport is going to be more like $40, $50 or $60 million a mile.”
NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN
“For better for worse, we’ve become famous for our streetcar even though we like to make sure we don’t neglect the bus,” says Jones. In that light, CAT is conducting a survey of the bus system this summer. “We hired McDonald Transit Associates Inc. to do a five-year strategic and growth plan for the bus side to try and do a little catch up with all the attention — all the money that’s been put on the rail side.” He adds with a laugh, “As long as there’s 3 dollars a gallon gas out there, folks are going to say yeah, we want to hear about a bus plan.”