Happy Trails on the Horizon?

AMTC's Vision Quest

by Nelson England Some Austinites have been dreaming about it for decades: a system of interlinking urban trails that would allow hikers and bikers to get around town free of the fumes, noise, danger, and harassment of motorized traffic. Now the dream is within the range of fulfillment if Austin's cyclists and pedestrians can seize the moment, say leaders of the Austin Metropolitan Trails Council (AMTC).

The AMTC is a coalition of representatives from 25 area organizations and government agencies that came together in 1993 to form a trail advocacy group. At the time, a new federal law had just created a special category of transportation funding called "Enhancements" - dedicated to non-roadway, alternative transit projects - that was up for bids in a statewide competition. As several local organizations began drawing up proposals to capture Enhancements funds to add to Austin's trail system, they found themselves competing with each other, and decided to join forces instead. The result was the AMTC, and the winning of almost $7 million in federal and local funds for Austin trails in the first two years of Enhancements funding, approved in the Spring of 1994.

Visionary Austinites have long recognized the potential of a comprehensive urban trail system following the natural hub and spoke network created by the city's creeks feeding into Town Lake. Such a system would make it possible, for example, for a cyclist to leave the University of Texas following a spoke trail along Waller Creek to the Colorado River, then continue on the Town Lake hub trail to another spoke trail following Barton Creek to Barton Springs. Other spokes along Shoal, Johnson, East and West Bouldin, Blunn, and Boggy Creeks would provide access between the east-west Town Lake hub and neighborhoods in North and South Austin.

The problem in realizing this potential has always been the lack of funding. Trails have usually been considered "recreational" by state and local transportation planners, and of minor importance compared to the "serious business" of moving cars. It was only after passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) by Congress in 1991, and the creation of the Enhancement funds through that law, that transportation funding for trails became more feasible. ISTEA provides ways for cities to comply with the mandates of the Clean Air Act by correcting the imbalances of automobile-dominated transportation. Under ISTEA, walking and cycling are considered not just recreational, but highly desirable, non-polluting modes of commuting and travel, and the Enhancements funding category was placed off limits to highway planners in order to ensure that at least some money gets spent on trails.

In addition, ISTEA gives new funding authority to regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations, such as the Austin Transportation Study (ATS), our regional committee. The ATS now commands about $7.8 million a year in federal Surface Transportation Program funds for local road, bike, pedestrian, and transit projects. So far, ATS has voted to spend 15% of that on bicycle and pedestrian projects.

The Vision Thing: Starting From the Hub

Armed with a $20,000 grant from ATS, and planning assistance from a group of dedicated volunteers, the AMTC set out two years ago to develop a comprehensive metropolitan area trail plan. For several months, volunteers sought citizen input on where to locate the most desirable trail corridors. Other volunteers "ground checked" each trail proposal, and ranked it according to its feasibility and significance to a regional system. The result was this summer's release of the AMTC's Vision Document, which outlines plans for more than 70 potential trail corridors and greenbelts.

While some of the trails proposed in the Vision Document already have money set aside for them from ISTEA, another 14 trails ranked as having the highest potential would require additional funding proposed under an AMTC-backed $20-25 million municipal bond package. This money, however, would be used only for trails within the Austin city limits, and would probably not be enough for all 14 trails, according to Kathryn Nichols of Texas Parks and Wildlife. Completion of this highest priority system would add 35-50 miles of trails to the city's 35 miles of existing trails, firmly establishing the hub and spoke system at the urban core, as well as providing major connections to surrounding suburbs and wilderness parks. The Austin Parks Advisory Board recently voted to ask the city council to call for a public vote on the bond package as early as next year.

A major priority for a successful trail system is completion of the hub - the Town Lake Trail, which runs continuously on the north shore of Town Lake between MoPac and Pleasant Valley Road. On the south shore, there's a 2.5-mile gap from just east of I-35 to near the Austin American-Statesman offices, east of Congress Avenue. But closing this gap could prove expensive: the area between I-35 and Congress is built out to the shore with apartments and businesses. If passed, funding for construction of a causeway out over the edge of Town Lake would be provided by the bond package.

Radiating out from the central Town Lake Trail are a series of proposed and completed trailways. One is the Colorado River Trail, a proposed two-mile extension of the Town Lake Trail east of Pleasant Valley Road on the south shore of the river, which would include a branch heading south to ACC's Riverside Campus. Long-term plans call for extending the Town Lake Trail on the north shore from west of Deep Eddy Swimming Pool to north of Tom Miller Dam in West Austin.

A Lamar Blvd. Bike and Pedestrian Bridge, paralleling Lamar over the Colorado River, will provide another important link in the Town Lake Trail system. Enhancements funding is already allocated for this million-dollar project - which will be patterned after the South First Street Pedestrian Bridge - but construction is being delayed while the city seeks funds to expand the Lamar Bridge to six lanes of automobile traffic. Lamar exemplifies one of the biggest hurdles to a comprehensive trail system: major arterials and freeways that form dangerous barriers to continuous cycle and pedestrian travel. Breaching these barriers usually costs more than constructing many miles of trails.

Creekside Spokes

Important spoke trail corridors in the urban core that have already been approved for federal ISTEA funding and are awaiting construction include Shoal, Waller, and Barton Creeks. Shoal Creek probably has the greatest potential in Austin for a major commuter trail. Currently, the trail is continuous for three miles from Town Lake to 38th Street near Seton Hospital, though gaps created by flood damage must be repaired. ISTEA money will pay for a bridge and crosswalk to ease the passage over 38th Street, thereby connecting the trail northward to Shoal Creek Boulevard, an important bicycle commuting route that runs all the way to US183. North of 183, a proposed segment of trail along Shoal Creek is funded as far north as Braker Lane. And although Shoal Creek Blvd. provides a fast route for cyclists between US183 and 38th Street, long-term plans call for constructing a creekside trail through this segment as well.

Also slated for construction is the Zilker Park Trail, which will fill in the current gap between Town Lake, Barton Springs, and the eight-mile-long Barton Creek Trail. The Zilker trail will go up the east side of Barton Creek from the Town Lake Trail, passing under Barton Springs Road. Just upstream of Barton Springs Pool, a bicycle/pedestrian bridge will connect with the Barton Creek Trail west of the creek.

Another trail with great potential is the Waller Creek Trail, which some citizens see as Austin's answer to San Antonio's Riverwalk. Major trail renovation is already completed on much of the creek, which flows through the UT campus, Waterloo Park, Symphony Square, Sixth Street, and the Convention Center on its way to Town Lake. However, major problems prevent extensive use of the trail. Waller Creek has the worst pollution of any urban creek, with trash washing directly into it from downtown streets. Frequent flooding damages the trail, and several gaps in the trail require travelers to cross busy streets, making it unpleasant for pedestrians and impractical for cyclists. Gang graffiti, transient camps, and drug transactions likewise discourage trail use. Some federal funds have already been allocated to help solve some of these problems by adding accessible ramps, bicycle/pedestrian bridges, new trail links, lighting, and creek bank stabilization. However, major renovation may have to await a longer-term solution to flooding, a major expense not currently funded.

Three other creek corridors important to the central trail hub and spoke system recommended by AMTC could receive federal funding for improvements - if approved by the ATS at their next meeting in August. The proposed Boggy Creek Trail would extend from Town Lake for 2.6 miles to the Downs-Mabson Baseball Field in East Austin. The Blunn Creek Trail, which passes through Stacy Park in South Austin's Travis Heights, would be extended north of Riverside Drive to the Town Lake Trail. (Future high-priority plans call for extending it south of Travis Heights to the Blunn Creek Wilderness Park and St. Edward's University, as well.) The city has also asked ATS to fund a 150-foot bicycle/pedestrian ramp under MoPac at Sixth Street to connect an east-west segment of the Johnson Creek Trail to the main north-south route.

Farther out from the urban center, federal enhancements money has also already been allocated for one major trail addition; the Moore's Crossing Trail will connect McKinney Falls State Park via Onion Creek to Richard Moya County Park south of Bergstrom. Eventually cyclists may be able to ride to McKinney Falls directly from Austin via proposed connections from the Colorado River Trail and from Southeast Austin neighborhoods.

Other potential corridors that would help connect the urban core to outlying natural areas include Slaughter Creek in South Austin, Bull Creek in the northwest, and Walnut Creek in the northeast. Trails along these and other creeks would be funded in the municipal bond package that AMTC is promoting.

While implementation of the AMTC's Vision Plan is off to a good start, significant problems lie ahead. Rapidly increasing urban sprawl means that more and more land in the urban watershed is covered with asphalt. This impervious cover causes rainwater to run off rapidly and flood the creeks, rather than soaking into the ground. Trails along the creeks may be damaged by the flooding while the creeks themselves make less desirable corridors because of pollution from urban runoff. And security along creek corridors may be a problem as well, as exemplified by the recent rash of attacks on joggers and cyclists along Town Lake. Landowners along creek corridors may put up stiff opposition to trail construction, as happened recently when plans were unveiled for the Moore's Crossing Trail on Onion Creek (though Kathryn Nichols says AMTC is doing its best to work with landowners to prevent such controversy). Funding may also be difficult, as city finances are tightening and federal money for trails could dry up when the ISTEA bill comes up for renewal in 1998. A conservative Congress intent on cutting spending may show little sympathy for modes of travel that don't subsidize the giant automotive sector of the economy.

All the more reason for Austinites to seize the opportunity now to preserve what we can of our creeks and greenbelts before motorized transport destroys these last oases of calm in an asphalt desert. n


Adopt-a-Trail

The Austin Metropolitan Trails Council is a non-hierarchial, all-volunteer organization whose members have put in hundreds of hours of their time to make Austin's trail system a reality. But the battle is just beginning, and more volunteers are needed to increase public awareness of the trail plan in order to gain city bonding approval. Other volunteers are needed to help plan trail locations in their neighborhoods, or to organize neighborhood adopt-a-trail groups to maintain trails. Since the city often lacks funds for trail maintenance, AMTC organizes volunteers to work on the trails - often doing in one day what it would take city workers weeks to accomplish. An Austin group called the Central Texas Trail Tamers has gained expertise on trail building and repair by working under the supervision of national park rangers. Members of the Trail Tamers group are often available to help neighborhood groups initiate their own projects.

For more information about the AMTC, call Kathryn Nichols at 389-4735, or Butch Smith at Austin Department of Parks and Recreation at 499-6763. - N.E.

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