An effort is underway to transform the old bridge that spans the White River at Clarendon, but state partners are still awaiting federal backing, including support from U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
An organization, Friends of the Historic White River Bridge at Clarendon, wants to turn the bridge into one of the longest elevated bicycling, pedestrian and nature platforms in the world. The bridge was slated to be torn down but the Arkansas Supreme Court issued an injunction July 27 to give state and federal entities 60 days to negotiate a deal, according to a release from FHWRB. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Department of Interior (DOI) have at times shown interest in the project, but recently have cooled to the idea, the release states.
“As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife – the committee which oversees USFWS – Sen. Boozman is perhaps the best-positioned, most powerful man in Congress on this matter. His resounding ‘neutral’ position on a seemingly positive project in his home state with substantial grassroots and public support may be sending a powerful message to the leadership at DOI/USFWS not to engage,” the group stated.
Repeated attempts by Talk Business & Politics to reach Sen. Boozman for comment were unsuccessful.
It will cost $11.3 million to demolish the bridge, according to estimates. A federal program allows funds that were slated to demolish an old bridge to be transferred if the bridge can be either be refurbished or repurposed. This project would qualify for $5 million in this program and it would be enough to repurpose the bridge, according to a feasibility study that was completed last month.
The issue that has prevented this project from moving forward is a 2009 exchange deed in which the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department secured a right of way from USFWS to build the new U.S. 79 bridge. To secure the deed, 147 acres were transferred to USFWS and a promise to demolish the old bridge was reached. The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has agreed to dissolve the agreement, but neither the USFWS or DOI has agreed to those changes.
USFWS has expressed concerns that the new structure might not have long-term viability, it might not be properly maintenanced which could impact wildlife in the area, and the cost and time required to process environmental and other paperwork associated with the project.
Three state governmental entities recently agreed to partner in the project. The Central Arkansas Planning and Development District (CAPDD) would take ownership of the property rather than the city of Clarendon. The costs of ongoing maintenance would be covered in their entirety by funds from the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism and the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
The bridge could be part of bicycle path from Memphis to Little Rock. The path could impact at least seven counties in eastern Arkansas and at least 10 cities, according to the group.