Little Rock, Arkansas/Little Rock River Rail Project

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Little Rock River Rail Project

Little Rock, Arkansas

(November 1998)


The Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) is planning a 1.9-mile circulator system on existing right-of-way connecting the Alltel Arena, the River Market, and the Convention Center in downtown Little Rock to the communities of North Little Rock and Pulaski County. CATA proposes that service be provided by seven replica streetcars operating on a single track powered by overhead catenary. Phase I will include vehicle purchase and construction of a maintenance facility and is estimated to cost $7.6 million (1997 dollars). FTA has estimated total project costs in year of expenditure (YOE) at $8.28 million, with an estimated Section 5309 share of $6.62 million. Ridership projections estimate 1,000 to 1,200 daily riders with an additional 1,000 to 1,800 riders on special event days. Phase II of the project includes a proposed 0.4 mile extension along existing right-of-way to the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library site.

Little Rock River Rail Summary Description

Proposed Project Vintage Streetcar service
1.9 miles, 7 stations
Total Capital Cost ($YOE) $8.28 million
Section 5309 Share ($YOE) $6.62 million
Annual Operating Cost ($1997) $0.5 million
Ridership Forecast (2020) 1,000 - 1,200 daily boardings
FY 2000 Financial Rating: Low-Medium
FY 2000 Project Justification Rating: Not Rated
FY 2000 Overall Project Rating: Not Recommended

The overall project rating applies to this Annual New Starts Report and reflects conditions as of November 1998. Project evaluation is an ongoing process. As new starts projects proceed through development, the estimates of costs, benefits, and impacts are refined. The FTA ratings and recommendations will be updated annually to reflect new information, changing conditions, and refined financing plans.


A feasibility study was completed in 1997. No formal Major Investment Study (MIS) was completed due to the limited scale of the project, the use of existing rail and street rights-of-way, and the low cost. FTA approval to enter the Preliminary engineering (PE) phase of project development was granted in May 1998. Preliminary Engineering is scheduled to be completed by May 1999. CATA anticipates requesting permission to enter Final Design in the summer of 1999.

Metro 2020, the Metropolitan Transportation Plan for the Central Arkansas Regional Transportation Study area (CARTS), was updated in January 1998 to include the River Rail Project in the plan. TEA-21 Section 3030(a)(36) authorizes the Little Rock River Rail project for final design and construction. Through FY 1999, Congress has appropriated $2.98 million in Section 5309 New Starts funds to this project.


The River Rail Project is exempt from the New Starts criteria because the Section 5309 share is less than $25 million. As a result, criteria are not addressed for mobility improvements, environmental benefits, operating efficiencies, and cost effectiveness. Although this project is exempt, CATA has provided information for the assessment of transit supportive land use, local financial commitment, and other factors. In addition, CATA reports that based on the 1990 Census data, there are an estimated 565 low-income households within a ½ mile radius of the proposed seven stations, roughly 43 percent of total households within ½ mile of proposed stations.


Transit-Supportive Existing Land Use and Future Patterns

Rating: Medium

The land use rating of Medium for the proposed project is a reflection of the moderate densities along the corridor and emerging local efforts to better integrate transit and adjacent development. Existing land uses in the Little Rock and North Little Rock Central Business Districts (CBDs) consist of moderate density commercial, office, retail, and residential. Adaptive reuse of older commercial/warehouse structures is resulting in the creation of a new entertainment and cultural district along the Little Rock waterfront adjacent to the proposed rail line. Efforts are underway to allow mixed uses and to increase the pedestrian friendliness and transit orientation of both Little Rock and North Little Rock. These local jurisdictions have developed a number of zoning and design regulations for the CBD areas that are supportive of transit. Metro 2020, the long range transportation plan for the area, recommends that the metropolitan core be preserved as an economically healthy symbol for the region. Future growth can be focused where water, sewer, and community facilities are already in place and transit friendly development can also be encouraged. The City of Little Rock does not have a transit supportive parking policy at this time.

Other Factors

Empowerment Zones and Livable Communities: The corridor area is part of a proposed Enterprise Community and Empowerment Zone; its status is currently pending. CATA is considering a Joint Development/Livable Communities Initiative project that includes streetscape, downtown streetcar interface, a parking deck, and the integration of the streetcar maintenance facility with a rail museum and other educational facilities.

The corridor area is part of a proposed Enterprise Community and Empowerment Zone; its status is currently pending. CATA is considering a Joint Development/Livable Communities Initiative project that includes streetscape, downtown streetcar interface, a parking deck, and the integration of the streetcar maintenance facility with a rail museum and other educational facilities.

Local Financial Commitment

Proposed Non-Section 5309 Share of Total Project Costs: 20%

The financing plan for the Phase I of the River Rail Project includes $6.1 million (80 percent) of Section 5309 New Start funds and $1.5 million (20 percent) in local funds (all in 1997 dollars).

Stability and Reliability of Capital Financing Plan

Rating: Low-Medium

The rating of Low-Medium for the proposed project is primarily due to the lack of detailed financial statements from some of the participating jurisdictions and recent local difficulties to provide local match to FTA Section 5307 funds. The Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) is governed by an Interlocal Agreement where six local governments (Pulaski County, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood, Maumelle, and Cammack Village) appoint the governing board and apportion the capital and operating costs among themselves based upon vehicle miles of service. Because the River Rail Project impacts only three jurisdictions (Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Pulaski County), a three-way cost split has been negotiated. The three jurisdictions have all provided letters to the CATA board of directors expressing their commitment to provide their share of the capital investment and the operating funds necessary to construct and operate Phase I of the River Rail project. Little Rock and North Little Rock have submitted financial documentation for review and are deemed financially capable to meet their respective anticipated capital contributions to the project. Financial statements for Pulaski County have not been submitted for review. Specific amounts that each jurisdiction will contribute to the capital costs have not been detailed in any document provided by CATA. However, CATA developed and submitted its Capital Replacement Plan in 1998, which demonstrates CATA and its member governments’ strong commitment to address CATA’s urgent capital needs and how those needs will be met.

Stability and Reliability of Operating Finance Plan

Rating: Low-Medium

The Low-Medium rating on the operating finance plan is due to the lack of a CATA bus replacement program and the insufficient match of local funds for FTA Section 5307 funds. The annual operating costs associated with Phase I are estimated to be between $400-$600 thousand, a 5-9 percent increase in CATA’s operating budget. There currently exists a serious concern with CATA’s bus replacement program because over half of the agency’s buses are over the recommended replacement age of 12 years. CATA has not had a regular capital replacement program in the transit agency’s history. Currently, FTA Section 5307 funds provided to CATA have not been matched with sufficient local funds. At present there is discussion on providing the local match for the Section 5307 through revenues generated by the planned Joint Development/ Livable Communities Initiative project and/or through increased contributions from local jurisdiction.

Local subsidies to CATA’s operating revenues doubled between 1990 and 1995 while Federal subsidies decreased by 23 percent. In FY 1995, passenger fares accounted for approximately 22 percent of total revenues and local subsidies accounted for 61 percent of total operating budget. CATA received a state contribution from the dedicated gasoline tax in 1995 representing 1 percent of the total operating budget. However, it is unclear if this source of funds is to continue.

Locally Proposed Financing Plan

(Reported in $YOE)

Proposed Source of Funds Total Funding
Appropriations to Date
Federal: Section 5309 New Start $6.10 $2.98 million appropriated through FY 1999
Local: City of Little Rock, City of North Little Rock, and Pulaski County $1.50 N/A
Total: $7.60

Note: Funding proposal reflects assumptions made by project sponsors, and are not DOT or FTA assumptions. Totals may not add due to rounding.

[Little Rock River Rail Map (PDF)]