One very farsighted investment 18 years ago is paying off, big time, for the city of Denton, Texas.
In 1993, Denton officials struck a deal with Union Pacific (UP) to secure rights to an abandoned stretch of freight track running eight miles into the city from the southeast. The line was once part of the renowned Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, also known as the Katy.
Just 38 miles as the crow flies from the center of Dallas, the largest metropolitan region in the southern United States, the leaders of Denton rightly predicted that their city would do some growing in the decades to come, and that growth would require capacity for mass transit.
"We always recognized we had to preserve this corridor for future transportation uses," says Bob Tickner, city of Denton superintendent of parks planning, who in 1993 was involved in negotiating the purchase from UP. "We knew it would one day become passenger rail, we just didn't know when."
It was a good hunch. The city purchased rights to use the corridor from UP for just $10,000. Under federal railbanking legislation, UP reserved the right to reactivate train service on the tracks in the future.
In a community that included two state university campuses—housing, at that time, about 30,000 students—demand for transportation infrastructure was growing. Soon after purchasing rights to the corridor, the city received a $435,000 grant through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) to covert the rail line into a trail, securing the struts and laying a limestone gravel surface. An additional $350,000 Transportation Enhancements (TE) grant helped complete the project.
That was in 1998, and for the next 12 years the eight-mile Denton Branch Rail-Trail was a well-used connection for walking and biking, in a region of the country where such pathways are relatively scarce.
Tickner's predictions about population growth and rail service were right on the money—48,000 residents in 1980, 113,000 in 2010—and a few years ago Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) began buying up sections of line for their burgeoning light rail system. The Denton County Transportation Authority (DCTA) found itself in a strong position, owning rights to a corridor that was now a key piece of the transportation plan for the Dallas metropolitan region.
A rarity in the field of corridor abandonments, but not without precedent, rail service was reactivated in June of this year. It now carries the A-train commuter southeast to the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, where it connects with the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Green Line.
The rail-to-trail has now become a rail-with-trail. Just as the champagne bottle was being smashed on the A-train, so too did the people of Denton celebrate the reopening of their Denton Branch Rail Trail, now an 8-foot wide, paved trail parallel to the tracks.
For Tickner, the train service and trail are a satisfying legacy; he is set to retire at the end this year.
"For me, it started out because I was a rail fan," he says, his interest growing over the years in the transportation and recreational capacity of trails and walking and biking infrastructure. During his tenure, he led a department now recognized as being proponents of non-motorized connectivity.
Tickner says it wasn't that long ago that many engineers and public works staff felt that "if it wasn't to do with concrete, asphalt and automobiles, it wasn't happening. That's changing now," he says. "Every resident survey we do, trails and bikeways come back as the number one amenity people want to see. That is changing the way everyone thinks."
Another reason for the growing interest in biking and non-motorized transportation in Denton is a young man by the name of Howard Draper. The launch of Draper's blog, Bike Denton, in 2007 was a catalyst that helped create an active bike community that now shares ideas and resources, lobbies the local council and makes sure cycling is represented in transportation planning. That same year, an all-volunteer nonprofit community bike shop, Querencia Community Bike Shop, opened in Denton and formed a group of people who wrote letters to the council requesting more options for biking and walking.
Draper remembers a time when things were different.
"The city held a bike meeting back in 2001 to hear from residents who were interested in biking in the city," he says. "Six people showed up. Ten years ago, even five years ago, there were very few people riding around here. Times have changed very quickly."
It is surprising that a relatively small city with two university campuses would not have many cyclists. But Draper says due to a few incidents of crime, the University of North Texas (UNT) actively discouraged biking until just a few years ago.
Now, partly thanks to Draper and his peers, there are three bike-friendly councilors on the seven-seat city council. Last year the city hired a consultant to develop plans for improving pedestrian and bicycle mobility, and this summer the council agreed to double next year's budget for bicycle and pedestrian projects "in a move designed to appease bicycle advocates and secure matching funds from the county," says the Denton Record Chronicle. And this month UNT installed two bike-repair stations, with tools and air pumps, for students to use.
Though it may seem as if the "battle" has been won, there is still work to be done to convince much of the region's planning leadership of the sense and economy of investments in trails and non-motorized transportation. While Draper recognizes that Tickner's parks department is switched on to non-motorized enhancements, he says it is the exception rather than the rule.
Still, all that letter writing is starting to pay off. After a campaign in 2007 to convince the city to build a bike/ped bridge where the DBRT hits the busy Texas State Highway 288, last year the council announced plans and funding to do just that. And while the city may not be able to afford the bike/ped coordinator position it had hoped to appoint this year, there are a number of sidewalk and trails projects on the public works schedule.
The city is beginning to see the fruits of these labors. Tickner describes significant growth in transit oriented development—businesses and residences have sprouted up near transit centers—and remarks on the potential for more.
In the DBRT, Draper sees evidence of the multi-faceted power of trails.
"It goes past one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city. For families without a car, the trail can be the only way they can get around," he says. "I'm seeing new 'types' of people using the trail—people who look like they are using it for the first time, trying to get in shape. And I'm seeing all the apartment complexes are building paths to connect to the trail, so I know it is having a commercial impact, too."
The energetic Draper sees endless possibilities in the region in the form of other out-of-service rail lines. "The Katy ran right through the city, so there are a number of these other lines, tributaries, that could be rail-with-trail projects too," he says.
Whether Denton's trails landscape can keep pace with Draper's vision will be the challenge for the city in the decades to come.