160812-active_plan 160812-cycling_brownsville 160809-tiger_1

BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Cameron County is to get a countywide cycling lane as part of a project called The Active Plan.

Ten local governments are participating in the project – Brownsville, Harlingen, South Padre Island, Port Isabel, San Benito, Los Fresnos, Rio Hondo, Rancho Viejo, Laguna Vista, and Combes.

Regional stakeholders involved in the project include UT School of Public Health, National Park Service, Texas Fish & Wildlife, Texas Department of Transportation, Brownsville Metropolitan Planning Organization, Harlingen-San Benito Metropolitan Planning Organization, various economic development corporations in Cameron County, and various Convention & Visitors Bureaus in Cameron County.

Brownsville City Commissioner Rose Gowen explained the reason for creating The Active Plan: “There is a term called the active tourist. That means a tourist who wants to be on a bicycle or who wants to walk; who wants to exercise while they are on vacation. Active tourists do not want to stay in a bed and breakfast. They want that special taco in downtown Brownsville that you can only get here. They want to take their experience back with them. They want to paddle through Arroyo City.”

The plan lays out a network throughout the county of 227 miles of off-road potential cycling lanes, mostly developed along existing canal right-of-way. The trail will start in the city of Combes and will then part into two trails, one which will be called the “nature” trail and the other the “historic” trail. The “nature” trail will lead to Laguna Atascosa and the “historic” trail will head towards Harlingen and San Benito and go through many historical markers along Highway 281.

Battlefield trails will also be utilized. For example, a current battlefield trail that starts at the center of Brownsville will receive a 4-mile extension to Los Fresnos. A new battlefield trial will be created called the Bahia Grande. It will likely connect two of the county’s national parks, Bahia National Refuge and Palo Alto National Battlefield Site.

Another proposal included in the project is to expand the South Bay paddling trail along the Arroyo Colorado to Harlingen.

Gowen gave details about The Active Plan in a power point presentation given recently to the United Brownsville board of directors. The directors heard that Cameron County has received $100,000 from the Legacy Foundation for the project. Local municipalities are matching this. Ten thousand dollars is coming from each of the surrounding cities, with additional funding from local, state, and federal sources. The total cost of the project is $200,000.

“Usually, it is hard to get ten cities to agree on anything, much less to give money. But this is something they are very much engaged in. This is a project that links transportation, the economy and health. It not only gets the community healthy, it diversifies the economy and grows small business,” Gowen said.

In her presentation to United Brownsville, Gowen outlined the demographic of the active tourist.

“The average bicycle tourist is 50 years old, they have a college degree if not a higher education degree, they have expendable income of around $175,000,” Gowen said. “There are many of us who really want to have a healthy active and vibrant to vacation. We’ve done a lot of work in Brownsville, these past few years, to create a network of seamless options of transportation and this initiative aims to enrich this network in several ways as well as to extend the network to our neighboring cities.”

In her presentation to United Brownsville, Gowen pointed to the success of the Oregon Trail. She said this famous trail brings in 450 million tourism dollars a year. Gowen said unlike Oregon, Cameron County has “wonderful winters.” This, she said, was a good selling point. Another reason for the trail is health-related. Cameron County’s wage earners lose $250 million a year due to diabetes or having to take care of someone with the disease, Gowen explained. “Imagine what our economy could be like if we were healthier,” she said.

Gowen also spoke about The Active Plan when she appeared at a news conference on Monday to announce a $10 million TIGER transportation grant. Some of this money will go towards a bicycle and pedestrian lane on the Queen Isabela Causeway. The news conference was held outside Brownsville City Hall.

“The Active Plan is about to finalized and then it will be adopted by all of our ten partners in Cameron County,” Gowen told the Rio Grande Guardian. “It is very exciting to know that the sweetest piece is now in place,” Gowen said, referencing the bicycle and pedestrian lane for the Queen Isabella Causeway that links South Padre Island to Port Isabel.

“Making sure that infrastructure is in place, like the Queen Isabella Bridge, attracts active tourists to our area. It brings new money into the community so that we can use their money to build infrastructure for those of us who live here all the time.”

Asked about concerns that a bicycle or pedestrian lane on the Queen Isabela Causeway might have too steep an incline for a casual cyclist, Gowen said: “I think it is fun to have a bike lane when it is such an incline because those that are experienced riders enjoy the cross training. Those who are not experienced have a goal to reach. There is nothing wrong with getting off your bike and walking up that steep incline if you can. And the view is spectacular and the experience is heartwarming. So, I think it is worth the extra effort.”

Gowen added: “Multi-modal transportation is and needs to be continue to be the wave of the future for transportation not just for other parts of the country but in South Texas as well. We are trying very hard to make that a reality.”

Editor’s Note: Reporter Steve Taylor contributed to this story from Brownsville.