A Clarendon organization formed to save the White River Bridge from demolition and preserve the bridge as a hiking/biking route has posted the video above on its Facebook page. The state Highway and Transportation Department is building a new bridge across the White, scheduled to open around Labor Day, and has plans to demolish the old bridge.

The Highway 79 approach to the bridge is in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, as part of its agreement, developed over a decade, with AHTD to build the new bridge, is requiring that the earthen dam that supports that section of road be demolished, Danny Straessle, AHTD spokesman, said. Fish and Wildlife will restore the area to wetlands. You can see a satellite view of the project at I Drive Arkansas.

Straessle said if Clarendon or Monroe County wanted to take ownership of the bridge — which means responsibility for repairs and upkeep — either could, but the department has gotten no indication that they would be interested.  

The Coast Guard has a rule requiring that an old bridge be torn down within 90 days of the opening of its replacement, but the agency has agreed, at the request of the city of Clarendon, to rescind the rule. Sraessle said that gives his agency time to “be a good neighbor” while the Clarendon group sees if it can raise enough money to take possession of the bridge.

In April, Gov. Asa Hutchinson wrote Highway Department Director Scott Bennett asking him to postpone demolition for six months until Oct. 31, and Bennett gave his approval April 28. However, that deadline would be around 60 days after the opening of the new bridge if things go as planned, so it would not actually provide additional time for the private group to act.

Should the bridge somehow be preserved, an exit, such as a staircase, would have to be built on the west side from the piers into the refuge. Straessle was not sure whether Fish and Wildlife would provide access into the refuge from that point.

Straessle said the highway agency has never handed over a bridge to a private organization, such as a nonprofit 501 (c)(3). There may be fervor now to preserve the bridge for bike traffic, but that may wane, he noted, and the group may not in the future have the wherewithal to care for the bridge or remove it from the waterway if it collapses. “We are not trying to play hardball on this,” he said, but maintaining a bridge is serious business.

The highway department has budgeted $740,000 for removal. The new bridge is being built at a cost of $31.4 million.

Preserving the bridge would be part of a larger project to create a bike route between Little Rock to Memphis. Little Rock bike enthusiasts are also promoting an idea to create a bike route from Little Rock to Hot Springs on abandoned railroad right-of-way.