- Associated Press - Sunday, April 6, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas has kicked off a series of public meetings on developing the first statewide bicycle and pedestrian plan in 15 years - one that planners say should better acknowledge that biking and walking are increasingly popular.

The meetings come just before the League of American Bicyclists releases its ranking of bicycle-friendly states. Arkansas’ last-place showing in 2012 prompted Gov. Mike Beebe to form an advisory group of state agencies to look at ways to improve bicycle and pedestrian policies.

Last year, the state improved 13 spots, to rank 37th, a rise attributed to better communication of the programs and policies the state already has in place, rather than the development of new ones.

The public meetings are an outgrowth of the governor’s initiative. The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, which is a member of the advisory group, has hired the Toole Design Group, a Silver Spring, Md., consulting firm specializing in bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly development, to solicit public input and help develop the plan. Up to $300,000 in federal planning money is available for the 18-month effort.

The Arkansas’ Department of Health, its Parks and Tourism Department and the Arkansas State Police also are part of the effort.

The first meetings were held with local elected leaders, planning officials and bicycle enthusiasts in central Arkansas.

Bob Patten, a senior planner with Toole Design, said he didn’t want people to read too much into what the final report will contain.

“One of the things the plan is not going to do is it’s not going to develop a list of priority projects that are going to be set up for funding,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1ecCQvc ). “There won’t be specific funding commitments by (the Highway Department) in the planning process. The main goal of the plan is to get the bigger picture together and look at policy issues.”

He also said the plan wasn’t going to define a statewide network of bicycle routes, but instead foster a better understanding of what bicycle facilities are available statewide and what, in some cases, bicyclists and others are using that aren’t necessarily defined as bicycle routes.

“This effort is the first time at a statewide level that (the Highway Department) is able to pull together plans and thoughts that local governments have been doing over the past 10 years and pull together information from a lot of different facets of state life that affects bicycling and walking, and start to put the big picture together upon which specific campaigns and specific identification of networks” can be made, Patten said.

Over the past three decades, central Arkansas leaders have devoted more than $51 million in federal, state, local and private sources to construct the central portion of the 14-mile Arkansas River Trail loop, which follows along the Little Rock and North Little Rock sides of the Arkansas River. Less than 2 miles of the trail remains unbuilt.

That total includes the millions spent on extending the trails beyond Two Rivers Park Bridge, past Pinnacle Mountain and into other counties.

Over the past two decades, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Pulaski County and Maumelle have received federal grants and allocations worth roughly $28.5 million and state allocations worth more than $3.8 million for the trail.

Much of that work and trail work elsewhere in the state has been done since the last statewide bicycle and pedestrian plan was adopted in 1998.

“The state has never tried to pull that knowledge together,” Patten said. “Even the bicycling community has not pulled it all together.”

The plan then will help the state “grasp the magnitude of what some of the issues are out there,” he said.

Virginia Porta, a planning engineer for the Highway and Transportation Department, told participants at a lunchtime meeting at the offices of Metroplan, that her agency had been behind the curve.

“I’ll be the first to admit, yes, we have a lot of ground to make up,” she said.

Some members of the bicycling community say they are putting aside their long-standing skepticism of the state commitment to accommodating bicyclists on Arkansas roads for now.

“It is exciting,” said Judy Lansky, president of Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas. “I’m glad the state Highway and Transportation Department is asking us for input. It’s a real step forward.”

Increasing the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians is a secondary emphasis in the state highway safety plan adopted last year.

The goal of that plan is to reduce yearly traffic deaths on Arkansas roads to 400 or fewer by 2017. Last year, the number of people killed on Arkansas roads fell below 500 for the first time in more than 50 years.

Toward that overall goal, the state safety plan aims to reduce annual pedestrian fatalities on Arkansas roads to 27 or fewer and bicycle fatalities to three or fewer by 2017. The state reported 37 pedestrian fatalities in 2010 and an average of four bicycle fatalities per year from 2006-2010, the latest figures available.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

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