NOVEMBER 14, 2016


Are bike, pedestrian and aquatic trail systems desirable because they promote healthy lifestyles in a community, or because they draw tourists?
The Harlingen-San Benito Metropolitan Planning Organization hopes the answer is — both.
The transportation board has approved the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Active Tourism Plan, a preliminary designation which, as of now, doesn’t involve any funding commitment.
“The goal of the plan is to generate new economic opportunities throughout Cameron County, to diversify the local tourism market, to link Cameron County communities, create a regional bicycle and pedestrian network and help promote healthy lifestyles,” said Eva Garcia, a member of the Brownsville Planning Department which commissioned the study thanks to funds from a Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation grant.
“The current tourism economy in Cameron County is focused a lot around the beach,” Garcia said, but she thinks the county can do more.
“The Active Plan” as it is called proposes 120 miles of on-street bicycle routes starting in Combes and continuing to South Padre Island and on to Brownsville, or what she calls the “scenic route.” A second trail would be designated a “historic route.”
The plan also proposes more than 227 miles of multi-use trails.
“That’s your off-street system for runners, walkers or cyclists,” she said. “These are along either drainage or irrigation canals, some run along railroads and some run near the resacas.”
The plan also calls for 78 miles of paddling trails for kayakers or canoeists, starting with the existing 10 miles of state-designated paddling trail in South Bay.
“We’re proposing one all along the coast of the Laguna Madre and inland through Rio Hondo, terminating between Harlingen and San Benito,” Garcia said.
Cities with a stake in the plan so far are Harlingen, San Benito, Combes, Brownsville, Laguna Vista, Los Fresnos, Port Isabel, Rancho Viejo and South Padre Island.
This broad bike-pedestrian-paddle plan supersedes a previous hike-and-bike version approved by the Harlingen-San Benito MPO.
“The plan is different from what we had,” said J. Joel Garza Jr., director of the Harlingen-San Benito organization. “Our plan is more of a city structure plan, something people in this area need, like bike lanes, bike trails, etc.
“The Cameron County active plan is more about how to bring people from the outside into this county and use these new trails, the proposed trails, so that’s the big difference — the tourism element,” Garza added.
Garcia said the proposed transportation system would be marketed to people who make up the “active tourism” market segment.
Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell, chair of the Harlingen-San Benito MPO’s board, made clear in his questioning that any board approval did not come with a financial commitment — at least for now.
“The intent is more to reach out for grants from different agencies,” Garza explained following the meeting.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer