Lower Valley trails tapped for US bike route designation

Brownsville and Cameron County’s hike-and-bike trail network will be the first in Texas officially part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System if the Texas Department of Transportation’s application to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is approved.

AASHTO, which coordinates state highway departments around the country, designates and catalogs USBRS routes. More than 14,000 miles have been officially designated as part of the system in 27 states and Washington, D.C., connecting urban, suburban and rural areas. Many more routes are proposed around the country. USBRS will total 50,000 miles when complete.

Proposed routes include a north-south route connecting Brownsville with Dallas-Fort Worth and an east-west route linking El Paso to East Texas, though to date no URBRS routes have been designated in the state, according to Ramiro Gonzalez, the city’s director of government affairs, who gave a presentation on the URBRS application during the Dec. 10 city commission meeting.

“There’s no designated bike route system in Texas, and that’s really because no other region or city has really thought about it,” he said. “If this process is successful, Brownsville and Cameron County would be the first designated part of the bike route system in Texas.”

TxDOT tapped Brownsville and Cameron County because of work done on Caracara Trails, formerly the Active Transportation and Active Tourism Plan, a proposed 428-mile trail network connecting communities via more than 230 miles of multi-use trails, 78 miles of paddling trails and 120 miles of on-street USBRS route.

“The USBRS is actually the easiest part of this plan in the sense that it takes the least amount of funding to put up a sign and designate something the ‘U.S. Bike Route System,’” Gonzalez said.

Icons of cyclists inform road traffic which lanes are designated for bicycle traffic only on Old Alice Road Tuesday.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Combes to South Padre Island would be designated USBR 255. From Combes to Brownsville through Los Indios and Harlingen would be designated USBR 55. In Brownsville, the routes would follow F.M. 281 and S.H. 48. Gonzalez said signage is “nice but not required” and that the designation comes down to prestige.

“It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “It’s just a designation.”

The goal of Caracara Trails is to diversify tourism and contribute to the economy while linking communities and encouraging healthier lifestyles, Gonzalez said. His presentation cited the economic impact of trail systems elsewhere in the United States.

The Great Allegheny Passage between Maryland and Pennsylvania, for instance, generates $100 million in annual spending, while the Silver Comet Trail in Georgia generates $120 million a year and the Washington & Old Dominion Trail $1.8 million in annual spending by non-locals, Gonzalez said.

It’s estimated that Caracara Trails’ six “catalyst projects” would generate $70 million in annual spending, he said. Among them is the Bahia Grande Segment, which Gonzalez described as “perhaps the signature project” of Caracara Trails. The 18- to 20-mile-long segment would connect Brownsville via the Historic Battlefield Trail to Laguna Vista and the Bahia Grande Unit of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

“You can kind of start to think what kind of attraction this would be to tourism,” Gonzalez said.

In Laguna Vista, the Bahia Grande trail would terminate at the South Texas Eco-Tourism Center, a joint project of Laguna Vista and the county that has gone out to bid, he said. Another catalyst project is the Laguna Madre Segment, which would connect the county’s coastal and bayside communities with Laguna Atascosa and comprise part of USBR 55.

Gonzalez said the city is proud Caracara Trails was tapped for TxDOT’s first application for USBRS designation, which could be approved by June.

“I think that says a lot for the work that’s been put into this plan,” he said. “It’ll bring the vision, it’ll bring bicycle tourism, it’ll be a destination and it just puts us on the map.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com