A New Star for Texas: the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Plan
The Active Plan is poised to turn south Texas into a world-class tourist destination—and spark a new era for health and wellness.
There’s a saying that “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 10 municipalities in Cameron County are proving the expression right as they embark on the creation of a 428-mile network of multiuse trails, bicycle routes and paddling trails aimed at connecting the region’s rich natural and cultural resources.
Sponsored by The Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in Brownsville—as well as the cities of Brownsville, Harlingen, Combes, Los Fresnos, Los Indios, Port Isabel, San Benito, South Padre Island, and the towns of Laguna Vista and Rancho Viejo—the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan, or “Active Plan,” is a first-of-its-kind blueprint to link the beaches, wildlife preserves, waterways and cultural sites the valley is already known for, attract waves of active tourists and transform the health of the local citizenry.
“I don’t know of another project that has captured the imagination and excitement of so many municipalities in our county as this has,” said Judy Quisenberry, grants director at The Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation, which invests in programs that seek to improve the health and quality of life in the Rio Grande Valley. “I believe that when [the plan is] implemented, our area will grow in visibility and become a real tourist attraction, which will benefit all who live in Cameron County.”
The ambitious plan, formally adopted in November 2016, will begin with six high-priority “catalyst projects” chosen for their ability to connect existing trails and recreational resources throughout the area. Composed of 75.5 miles of hiking, paddling and bicycle trails, this first phase includes the Arroyo-Resaca, Bahia Grande, Battlefield and South Padre Island multiuse trail segments; the Laguna Madre bicycle route segment; and the Arroyo Colorado paddling trail. All told, there will be 57.5 miles of multiuse trails and on-road bicycle routes coupled with 18 miles of paddling trails.
The Arroyo-Resaca hike and bike segment sits inland, just west of the other trails, and will link the cities of Harlingen and San Benito via two separate corridors. The first will be a scenic route winding around the arroyo that extends east from Harlingen’s Arroyo Colorado Trail at McKelvey Park; the second extends north from San Benito’s Heavin Memorial Park through classic Texas farmland characteristic of the region. A little to the north, the Arroyo Colorado segment, known to locals as Cameron County’s primary inland stream corridor, enables paddling as well as fishing and wildlife viewing, and links inland communities with the Laguna Madre.
To the south is the Bahia Grande section of the system, which will provide a scenic connection between the Bahia Grande unit of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge—where visitors can observe diverse species of migrating birds as well as ocelots, sea turtles and the endangered aplomado falcon—and the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, where the first battle that led to the Mexican-American War took place. The trail route also links the cities of Port Isabel and Laguna Vista to Brownsville and Los Fresnos through an extension of the Historic Battlefield Trail in Brownsville. The Historic Battlefield Trail, which runs directly through the middle of Brownsville, provides access to the city’s celebrated architecture, museums, zoo and other public facilities. The trail currently ends at the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, but the extension will continue north along Farm Road 1847 for 4.2 miles into the city of Los Fresnos.
To the east along the coast, the South Padre Island segment of the plan will provide bicycle and pedestrian access from the City of South Padre Island to pristine beaches in the undeveloped, northern parts of the island.
The Laguna Madre segment will be part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System—proposed USBR #55—and will connect Cameron County’s coastal and bayside communities with the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. The route will provide a scenic connection between the county’s most popular tourism destinations and the region’s richest ecological landmark.
Notably, the catalyst phase also emphasizes the importance of widening the Queen Isabella Causeway as a complementary component to these six projects. It will create a barrier-protected pedestrian and bike lane that will serve as an alternative access point to South Padre Island, and is considered a critical component of the multiuse trail system.
A Changing Mindset
For those involved, the fact that the 10 municipalities were able to come together and agree on this ambitious plan speaks to its importance and anticipated impact.
“This is a unique plan in that all of these cities have come together and are working together, and it’s because they see the benefit,” explained Jim Carrillo, vice president of HALFF Associates, Inc., who, in partnership with Toole Design Group and the Adventure Cycling Association, designed the system of trails included in the Active Plan. “This is an area that you know could benefit from this kind of activity and economic growth as well as expose local residents to active transportation and alternative modes of getting around.”
Indeed, while the region is known for its rich culture and natural beauty, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is also an area with significant socioeconomic challenges. In addition to high levels of poverty in the region, a disproportionate number of residents suffer from preventable health issues related to inactivity and obesity, most notably type 2 diabetes.
“Unfortunately, we have the highest limb amputation rate in the state, and our liver cancer rates are among the highest in the nation, with 80 percent related to obesity and diabetes,” said Dr. Rose Gowen, a local OB/GYN who also serves as a city commissioner for Brownsville and a board member for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC).
Dr. Gowen is one of the major drivers of the Active Plan and works closely with the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville on numerous projects geared toward improving the health of local citizens.
“Yes, the Active Plan will welcome and embrace active tourism, but it will also motivate our people to be more active. We’re not just bringing in new money; we’re also changing the mindset and changing the behavior of people,” she said.
At its core, the plan leverages the shared community interest in both local economic development and improving public health. Attracting the active tourist, be it through a scenic bicycle tour along the resacas—dry stream channels—or the appeal of a local coffee shop, will inject money into the economy. But the trails also will encourage locals to hike, bike or even ditch a car that many cannot afford.
“Yes, the Active Plan will ... embrace active tourism, but it will also motivate our people to be more active.” – Dr. Rose Gowen
“Studies show that the closer you live to a trail, the odds you will be more active go up by 40 to 50 percent because of increased access,” explained Ramiro Gonzalez, AICP, government affairs liaison for the City of Brownsville. “We really believe this will help us start to make a dent in the public health issues we’re facing in the region.”
“Cameron County communities rallied around the concept of region-wide active transportation largely due to the fact that they place so much trust in, and have such a high degree of support for, the local health organizations that bind them together down here,” added Christian Lentz, a senior planner with HALFF Associates, who worked closely on development of the plan. “The potential public health benefits are what has generated much of the public enthusiasm for walking and bicycling facilities throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley.”
Phase one of the Active Plan, including construction of the six high-priority catalyst projects, is projected to cost $36.4 million. It’s a steep price tag, but the return on investment promises to be more than worth it.
To put numbers to the projections, the National Parks Conservation Association in partnership with the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the 10 project communities commissioned an economic impact study to analyze the potential impact of the proposed Active Plan in the short and long term. They found that trail construction would account for the creation of 453 jobs throughout Cameron County as well as $14 million in labor income, $56 million in total economic impact and $5.3 million in local, state and federal taxes.
Looking to the future, the study predicted that in the 10th year after the trails open, non-local visitors will spend an estimated $39.6 million in Cameron County, accounting for 554 jobs, $17 million in labor income, $57 million in total economic impact and $9.1 million in local, state and federal taxes, each year.
In addition to the regional economic gains, the study estimated that within a decade, yearly medical cost savings to residents would be somewhere between $3 million and more than $6 million. In other words, citizens will become more active and healthy, and rates of preventable disease will drop.
“We have the potential to change the next generation’s view of transportation, which is a good thing if we really want to reduce, long term, the health risks we all know exist,” Dr. Gowen said.
The Active Plan is designed to ensure that local businesses are able to capitalize on the economic benefits of the network of trails while simultaneously improving local residents’ access to healthy activities. But it will also boost the region’s natural, cultural and educational resources. Tourists and locals alike will become more familiar with the region’s wildlife, including the many threatened and endangered bird species. Visits to public lands will increase thanks to improved access—and new experiences, such as guided bicycle tours or bird watching hikes, will emerge.
“We’re creating access to a huge outdoor classroom for science and the environment and ecology,” said Dr. Gowen. “The opportunities here are endless.”
By the Numbers
Miles to Go
The Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan, which kicked off in 2016, will comprise 428 miles of multiuse trails, paddling trails and U.S. Bicycle Route system on-road segments.
The six catalyst projects will total:
- 57.5 miles of multiuse trails and on-road bicycle routes
- 18 miles of paddling trials
PROJECTED ECONOMIC IMPACT TO THE LOWER RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Trail construction for the six catalyst projects will create:
- 453 jobs in Cameron County
- $14 million in labor income
- $56 million in total economic impact
- $5.3 million in local, state and federal taxes
In the 10th year after opening:
- Tourists are projected to spend an estimated $39.6 million in Cameron County.
- This will lead to the creation of 554 jobs, $17 million in labor income, $57 million in total economic impact and $9.1 million in local, state and federal taxes, anually.
- Yearly medical cost savings to residents are estimated to be between $3,108.653.20 and $6,492,040.44.
A National Model
Ultimately, the plan aims to promote the Lower Rio Grande Valley as a world-class destination for active tourists and center for new infrastructure growth by becoming one of the most extensive non-motorized transportation networks in the country. To move forward, however, the Active Plan will need continued funding support, specifically for the phase one catalyst projects. While full implementation is expected to take at least 20 years, already the project is being lauded as a national model for other regional trail network projects for its strategy and goals.
“It’s being recognized for taking its unique natural and social capital assets and shaping them into an active transportation and tourism strategy that will bolster the region’s economy in a sustainable way,” said Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development at RTC, which will be providing an on-the-ground project manager to support and amplify the work laid out in the Active Plan. “It is also a model for other regions in that it is putting health and wellness at the forefront of the approach, rather than as an afterthought or side benefit.”
RTC is looking closely at the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s plan as it works to move the rail-trail movement toward regional trail system development.
“These network-building projects are carrying communities over the tipping point, helping trails evolve from local amenities into the critical, connected infrastructures that support healthy people, places and local economies,” Thorstensen added. “This work represents the combined efforts of thousands of collaborators, leaders and visionaries from around the country. Through projects like these, and many others, our movement is unlocking the full value of these vacant corridors and transforming them into trail systems that are relied upon by millions of people.”
In the meantime, the coastlines, waterways, wildlife, culture and history that make the Lower Rio Grande Valley region so spectacular are waiting to be connected and, soon enough, discovered in a big way.
“It’s exciting to think about how many tourists will be exposed to all the hidden jewels of the area, and also knowing that this plan will encourage local residents to open their eyes to all of the wonderful things Cameron County has to offer, things that you just take for granted,” Carrillo said. “Kudos to the folks in Brownsville and all the other cities for coming together and making it happen.”
Learn more about the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Plan on the RTC website.