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story.lead_photo.caption Map showing the Proposed extension of the Arkansas River Trail

Designs for a 65-mile hiking and biking trail between Little Rock and Hot Springs moved another step forward Monday as the Garland County Quorum Court approved a funding measure.

A $3.2 million federal grant for the so-called Southwest Trail would pay for 80 percent of the project's first phase, which includes an engineering study, an environmental impact study and defining the trail's route.

One condition of the grant is a 20 percent, or $520,000, local match, which would be split among Garland, Pulaski and Saline counties.

Pulaski County passed its portion last month, leaving buy-in from the Saline County Quorum Court as the final piece of phase-one's funding puzzle. Last week, Saline County's Finance Committee unanimously advanced the measure to the Quorum Court. Approval of the resolution would officially accept the federal grant money through the Federal Lands Access Program.

Garland County Quorum Court members approved the resolution unanimously on Monday, authorizing County Judge Rick Davis to execute all agreements and contracts necessary to expedite the project.

A study commissioned in 2015 estimated that the trail could have significant impact on tourism in the three counties, including 65,000 trail users spending $3 million in the region's economy each year and supporting 68 new jobs.

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The trail would not only improve the quality of life in central Arkansas but become an economic driver, said Joe Jacobs, chairman of the Governor's Advisory Council on Cycling.

According to research conducted by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, for which Jacobs works as a marketing manager, expenditures from bicycling-related travel across the state amounted to nearly $250 million in 2016.

"As my wife said, who passes up an 80 percent off sale on something they need?" Jacobs said.

Early projected costs for the entirety of the three-phased project are estimated at about $33.3 million, with Pulaski County contributing $11.3 million, Saline County contributing $14.4 million and Garland County contributing $7.6 million, according to a 2015 preliminary study by Alta Planning & Design, a Portland, Ore.-based design firm with a Bentonville office.

Though a definitive route has not been determined, the direction of the trail would roughly follow that of the historic Southwest Trail, a network of trails used by American Indians and early pioneers to travel from St. Louis through Little Rock and down into Texas.

The stretch of the recreational trail passing through the unincorporated areas of Pulaski County will use sections of an old railroad right-of-way previously used by Missouri Pacific and Rock Island Railroad, which went bankrupt in the 1980s. The county purchased those abandoned lines about a decade ago, also using federal grant money.

Plans for the trail were originally hatched in 2013 by Buddy Villines, the former Pulaski County judge, and the enterprise has continued under the current Pulaski County judge, Barry Hyde.

Jeff Arey, the Saline County judge, has also focused on a key element of the trail -- the restoration of the Old Saline River Bridge, a 120-year old river crossing abandoned in the 1970s after a truck damaged a wooden-planked bottom.

Located one mile east of Interstate 30's Saline River crossing, the Old Saline River Bridge would span the largest waterway the Southwest Trail would need to cross.

The total restoration cost is estimated at $3 million and has so far attracted $1.3 million in grants, Arey has said.

Next year Pulaski County, which is playing a leading role in the project, will apply for another federal grant that would go toward the second phase of the project.

Metro on 08/15/2017

Print Headline: Garland County backs funding for 65-mile trail to LR

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