The Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock is one of the city's crown jewels. It's the longest purpose-built pedestrian/bicycle bridge in the country. The transverse span, the part actually crossing the river, is 3463 feet. The ramps up either side account for the rest of its 4226 feet.
The Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis is longer at 5253 feet, but it's a converted automobile bridge, part of the legendary Route 66. It wasn't built especially for nonmotor traffic, and on that basis we claim a national record for the Big Dam Bridge.
In addition to being 4/5 of a mile long, the Big Dam Bridge is 14 feet wide, 30 feet above the dam upon which it rests and from which it takes its name, and 65 feet above the river. It rests on 14 concrete pylons each weighing 37 tons. When the project was first announced in December of 2000, the estimated cost was $2 million. In March of 2001 the estimated cost was $3.9 million. In November of 2004 the estimated cost was $11.4 million. In January of 2006, the estimated cost was $12 million to $12.5 million. July of 2006, $12.8 million. The Big Dam Bridge, mercifully for the taxpayers, opened for traffic in October of 2006. The lighting alone for the finished project cost $887,788, almost as much as the original Federal grant.
It's a little unfair just to quote those figures and give the impression that a $2M bridge got run up to $13M. The original estimates were based on more modest plans, perhaps just a walkway attatched directly to Murray Lock and Dam, which was built in the 1960's. Then it had to be made high enough to pass over all concievable river trafffic. And if you're making it that high, you'll have to have big fat pylons anyway, you might as well widen it. And if it's going to be seven stories up, you'll want super-stout shoulder-high guard rails because waist-high handrails are not going to stop a cyclist going 25 mph. And if you make it just a little longer it'll be the longest of its kind in the U.S. And if it's going to be that ambitious a project, your local civil engineers don't have the experience to pull it off. You're going to need the Army Corps of Engineers and some consultants who have done stuff like this before. And since it's going to be a landmark piece of architecture, you've got to add some electronically controlled lighting to show it off at night. Before you know it you've spent your two million and another eleven million.
Of all the big projects in the riverfront area in the last ten years, this and Alltel Arena are the only ones paid for by completion. We're still paying off bond issues on the Little Rock Public Library, the land for the Clinton Library, the River Market, the Museum of Discovery, the trolley car line, and so on, debt debt debt debt debt.... Little Rock has gone into hock in a serious way in the last ten years.
This particular project carries no debt, so hooray for this particular project.
So yeah, the price of the project went off the chart, but this engineering wonder has increased the value of the parks on both sides of the river. This bridge connects the North Little Rock riverfront parks to the Little Rock riverfront parks. Eventually there will be foot trails from the Big Dam Bridge east to Murray Park east to Rebsamen Park, east to Riverfront Park, east to the River Market, east to the Clinton Library, across the river to North Little Rock, west to Riverfront Park, west to Burns Park, west to Cook's Landing and the Big Dam Bridge.
Pedestrians and cyclists now have a safe river crossing and will eventually have fourteen miles of pavement, seven on each side of the river, reserved for them. Consider this: In the near future, a visitor will check into a hotel in downtown Little Rock or North Little Rock and take his bicycle to all the museums and restaurants, shopping and entertainment downtown, bank fishing on the river and have access to 54 holes of golf at Rebsamen Park and Burns Park. A family could have a pretty good Little Rock vacation and do it all by bicycle. Well, that's on the near horizon.
This project came to be called the Big Dam Bridge during a session in a quorum court when Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines exclaimed "Look, we're going to build that dam bridge," referring to Murray Lock and Dam, over which the bridge was built. The comment caused raucus laughter in the courtroom. Some people considered the bridge to be extravagant, unnecessary and wasteful, especially since we were coming up short in funding a much needed new county jail. The majority of county officials oppposed the Big Dam Bridge and those people thought Big Dam Bridge was a dam good way to put it. After that, the local bureaucrats began casually referring to the project as the Big Dam Bridge, even though the official name was Pulaski County Pedestrian/Bicycle Bridge Murray Lock and Dam. Judge Villines argued that the upgrades made the bridge into the kind of place where weddings might be held, not just a platform to carry traffic. Folks laughed at him over that one. What could be more absurd? That creaky old noisy concrete lock and dam with the barges and the seagulls all around and the hydro plant? That's an industrial site, not a romantic setting for a wedding! Hardey har har, they harred.
As opening day neared and the bridge remained unnamed and publicity needed to be organized, local PR firm CRJW decided that Big Dam Bridge was a marketing godsend. The name attracts attention. It's memorable. People see Big Dam Bridge on a T-shirt and they buy the T-shirt.
There was a lighting ceremony and reception Thursday evening before the opening. Live music. Champagne. Catfish. (Just kidding about the catfish.) Judge Villines presided over the first wedding on the bridge during that reception, marrying Nancy Green to Rich Cosgrove. Todja eye todja. Turns out, seven stories above the river puts the rushing waters in the auditory background, raises the wedding party above the mosquitoes, and almost garauntees a breeze on even the most tropical Arkansas summer evening. Most of the unromantic industrial views are underfoot. The Big Dam is not easily viewed from the Big Dam Bridge. The views that are available are pretty spectacular. Here's one of those views featuring the I-430 Bridge and Pinnacle Mountain. In summertime the sun sets right behind Pinnacle Mountain.
Saturday was the official opening day. The Big Dam Bridge assimilated other events like the Borg. Since there were scheduling conflicts with the Breast Cancer Foundation Race for the Cure and the Diabetes Association's fundraising run those two events were incorporated into the Big Dam Bridge opening, along with a Boy Scout Camporee, ultimate frisbee tournament, health fair, receptions for the staff and more.
The name was supposed to be changed at the ribbon cutting, but nobody wanted their names put on a bridge that was obviously going to be forever known as the Big Dam Bridge. It's like a nickname you get when you first move into a neighborhood. You're never going to shake it. If they named it the Johnny Cash Bridge, it would still have to appear in print as the Johnny Cash "Big Dam" Bridge or people wouldn't know what bridge. Although I think Mr. Cash might appreciate the humor, the bridge is just not going to dignify any name you put on it.
There were speeches by Senator Blanche Lincoln and Governor Mike Huckabee, a song by Miss Arkansas, Amber Elizabeth Bennett and a National Guard 3-helicopter flyover. Judge Villines cut the ribbon, which was made of made of bicycle tires; and the first two official cyclists, the Mayors Little Rock and North Little Rock, pedaled across from south to north. Governor Huckabee himself ran in the 5K race that followed.
For Sunday, the Joe Weber Arkie 100 bicycle race was moved from Sheridan to Little Rock in 2006 so that the Big Dam Bridge could be incorporated into the course. The response was overwhelming. Entries had to be limited to 1000 since the bridge was near the starting line and organizers feared a dangerous bottleneck.
There was one controversey that arose a few weeks after the opening. Visitors discovered a design flaw that had gone unnoticed for the eight years the project was underway. You're seven stories up on a bridge 4/5 of a mile long. There's no place to curb your dog, and the dog stinkie was piling up. There was a suggestion in the paper that the solution was just to kick the dry ones through the drain slots, but the county invested in some poop stations for dog walkers. If you're taking your dog onto the Big Dam Bridge, stop at the poop station for gear and instructions.
Arkansas Democrat/Gazette articles(date SECTIONpage) 3/15/2001 B1; 3/15/2001 B4; 11/29/2004 A1; 4/22/2005 B4; 1/26/2006 B1; 4/30/2006 B1; 7/1/2006 B1; 8/7/2006 E6; 8/8/2006 A1; 10/1/2006 B1; 10/1/2006 C6; 10/1/2006 Editorial; 10/6/2006 B1; 10/8/2006 D4; 10/14/2006 B10; 10/26/2000 A1; 9/25/2006 E1; 9/27/2006 B1; 9/29/2006 C3; 9/29/2006 Weekend.