Beaten paths

A plan for hike-and-bike trails faces gridlock

The map on the wall at Luke's sporting goods is as overrun with boldly colored lines as a New York City subway map. Orange, red, green, blue, they intersect and collide in a web covering most of Dallas County. This laminated dream, produced by a couple of slick consulting companies at the behest of the county government, is called "Trails for the 21st Century."

At the rate things are going, they'd better make that the 22nd century.

A closer look at the map reveals that only three or four tiny sections of the vast grid have been completed, and that most of those were constructed many, many years ago -- the circuitous White Rock Lake Trail, for example, or the adjoining White Rock Creek Trail. The rest of the lines are proposals, plans, and projections. They are would-be trails by the dozen, drawn in dotted lines: The LBJ Trail, the Bee Branch Trail, the Grand Prairie Loop Trail, the Trestle Trail, the Cottonwood Creek Trail, and on and on, a legacy of undeveloped creek beds and abandoned rail lines.

For the most part, they are great ideas in search of money, those same public funds spent on everything but these quality-of-urban-life-enhancing walkways and paths. The same money that gets sucked out of the stream by all those public-private partnerships and their "win-win" projects. That's why on a nice Sunday afternoon, the few trails in Dallas or Arlington or Fort Worth are crowded with cyclists, joggers, and dog-walkers.

Advocates of the Katy Trail, running north from near Oak Lawn, have been scrounging for public money for a full decade, and all they have been able to do thus far is raise $850,000. That's $250,000 from the county and $600,000 from the feds -- enough to finish about two miles of paving, according to David Stocks, president of Friends of the Katy Trail. He says Dallas turned thumbs down on paying for the trail years ago.

Currently a strip of railroad bed bordered by bamboo stands and apartment houses, the trail runs through as densely a populated area as one can find in Dallas-Fort Worth, and as many as 1.6 million people will use it every year, Stocks says.

Enter the pot of gold, or in bureaucratic terms, the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality program, which sends federal transportation money to the states, then on to regional transportation panels to spend on improvements that unsnarl traffic and move people around in ways that don't further pollute the air. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the regional divvying is left to a panel of public officials called the Regional Transportation Council. Bike and trail advocates saw fit to go after some of the millions available. And after the council's staff concluded an elaborate air-quality-benefits analysis, $25 million worth of bike paths and pedestrian improvements made the final list, including $2.1 million for the Katy, $1.2 million for pedestrian areas in the Bishop Arts and Tenth Street Historic districts, and nearly $5 million for the Fish Creek trail in southern Grand Prairie and Arlington.

Mike Sims, one of the council's transportation planners, says the trails can be justified not just as nice places to skateboard on the weekends, but as transportation arteries that people will use to get to work, to shop, or to access public transportation. "About 5.5 percent of all trips taken in the region are pedestrian or bicycle trips," says Sims. "That's getting from point A to point B," not jogging for fitness, he says.

Enter the doubters, a mostly sub- urban group led by Tarrant County Commissioner Glen Whitley and Denton County Commissioner Sandy Jacobs. Two weeks ago, as the council voted to fund nearly $500 million worth of road projects, Whitely and Jacobs led a successful move to delay approval of the hike/bike projects until the council's mid-January meeting, when the staff will be asked again to justify the paths.

Although trail proponents say that the vote was not an outright rejection and that the January vote could still go their way, Whitley and others say they are skeptical that the trails aren't merely recreation projects disguised as transportation facilities, and therefore something the cities should pay for on their own.

"I can't justify spending $25 million on something that's mostly recreational when we have these kinds of traffic problems and the federal government telling us we need to clean up our air," Whitley says. He agrees with other members on the council who questioned whether people will commute to work by bicycle in North Texas' sweltering summers and windy winters. "I don't think someone out in Southlake is gonna bike to work in downtown Fort Worth in July," says Whitley, whose district includes the northeast Tarrant County suburbs.

Whitley admits that he's working against some trail money that would be spent in his own district -- $1.6 million for the Cottonbelt Trail -- but he sees an interchange upgrade in his district on Texas 114 moving up on the list once the trails are taken off.

Call it yet another opportunity to keep Texas No. 1 in per capita enjoyment of smog-belching Chevy Suburbans.

Taking up the other side at the council's December 9 meeting, Dallas City Councilwoman Sandy Greyson told the regional panelists that these same doubts were voiced in the past about public transportation, and that the success of the DART light rail shows how wrong those thoughts were. Trail advocates say that the paths will serve as links to present and future bus and rail lines, and that a culture of hiking and biking to work can develop only when a trail system is in place.

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