Trail builders gearing up for work on second phase of Violet Crown Trail

Austin American-Statesman – June 4, 2012

Climb into a car and drive someplace to go for a hike, a bike ride or a swim?

We’d rather walk or pedal right from the front door, thank you very much.

A lot of folks will be able to do just that when the Violet Crown Trail, a 30-mile pathway that ultimately will stretch from Zilker Park to Hays County, opens. The long, seamless expanse of trail will connect neighborhoods with parks, pools, libraries, schools and shopping centers and create lots of new terrain for hiking, running and pedaling.

Completion of the entire route is probably at least five years away, depending on funding, but work is gearing up on the crucial middle portion now.

The mostly finished first part of the trail, connecting Barton Springs Pool to Sunset Valley, overlaps existing trails in the Barton Creek Greenbelt, although crews rerouted portions of the pathway to curb erosion and will cut a new one-mile section by early next year.

Attention is now focusing on the second phase of the trail, a 7-mile segment that will link Sunset Valley to the Veloway, a popular closed cycling and skating loop, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Design is nearly finished on two short trail spurs being built by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department that will pass under MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), one connecting to Dick Nichols Park and another to the Circle C development.

Except for about 50 feet in easements still being negotiated, land for all 30 miles of the Violet Crown Trail, originally dubbed “Walk for a Day,” has been acquired. A master plan is finished. Environmental and engineering studies are mostly done and trail routes scouted.

“It will be the longest regional trail in Central Texas,” said Butch Smith, project manager with the Hill Country Conservancy, which has been instrumental in planning the trail. “It’ll act as a spine trail to the hub and spoke system downtown.”

More than 20 organizations, including the cities of Austin and Sunset Valley, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Texas Department of Transportation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have pitched in to make the trail a reality.

I wandered a section of the planned trail south of Slaughter Lane with Smith recently. It dipped past an old stock pond, swept through an open field blowing with Indian blankets and purple thistles, then crossed the dry limestone bed of Slaughter Creek, where a low-water crossing is planned. I felt like I was 10 miles out in the countryside, not a quarter-mile from MoPac.

“People want to go to the park, the Veloway, the Wildflower Center, to get a sandwich, and right now they have to get in a car and drive even though it’s right in their backyard,” Smith said.

Crews are expected to break ground on this stretch of the trail in early 2013. Construction will take about a year and a half, Smith said.

They’ll build an 8- to 10-feet-wide, hard surface, handicap-accessible trail made of crushed granite with a bonding agent. Plans call for trail heads with parking, restrooms and interpretive signs that explain the cultural significance and history of the area.

Master welders will work with members of the Environmental Corps of the American Youthworks, who have done tree surveys and preliminary trail layout, to build a steel bridge designed by architect Juan Miro.

All that’s needed now is more funding and final permits from the City of Austin.

Hill Country Conservancy officials are advocating for $3 million in funding for trail construction to be included in the City of Austin’s next bond election.

They’ve already spent about $700,000 from private donors including H-E-B and Advanced Micro Devices for environmental and engineering studies and management costs over the past five years. Another $105,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus funds, was used to create a trail crossing under U.S. 290 at Brodie Lane.

A $300,000 federal grant will help cover the cost of making the second phase of the trail shovel ready by early next year. A $200,000 grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife is being used for similar pre-construction work on a portion of trail between Dick Nichols Park and the Veloway area.

Trail builders hope the Violet Crown Trail will ease congestion on the lovingly trampled Barton Creek Greenbelt and other area trails, which show signs of overuse.

Trail planners in Oak Hill hope to eventually connect trails in their neighborhood with the Violet Crown Trail, too. The goal is to provide more connectivity, so people don’t have to get in their cars as often, said Rick Perkins, a volunteer with the Oak Hill Trails Association.

“We need people, not just children, to be free range, and right now we just jump in our cars and drive somewhere. It’s almost like we never got out of the house,” Perkins said. “We need to see the trees and feel the bugs.”

The final phase of the Violet Crown Trail, a 17-mile stretch from the Wildflower Center to just north of Onion Creek, will pass through City of Austin water quality lands once occupied by historical ranches. Those lands — the city bought 9,128 acres and has development rights on another 14,500 acres — were acquired with bond money approved in 1998, 2001 and 2006.

When it’s finished, the entire Violet Crown Trail will be open to pedestrians and bicyclists. The final section will also be open to equestrians, but closed to dogs.

The path, separated from traffic and free of any street crossings, will be a place parents can feel safe letting their kids roam, said Randy Scott, park planner for the Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s a wonderful recreational value to the citizens of Austin,” he said.

I’m already dreaming about one day running a marathon on it. Guess I’d better start training.