The old railroad tracks heading northward from Brownsville were removed 10 years ago, crossing over some of the city’s busiest streets and setting off a decade-long debate between developers and emerging exercise enthusiasts.
The debate at times grew heated between those wanting to create a new north-south thoroughfare and proponents advocating for a hike-and-bike trail to add to the miles of such trails currently crisscrossing all parts of the city. The disagreement also intersected with city and county politics as campaigns and alliances were created around the controversy.
“There were a lot of dark days,” said Dr. Rose Gowen, a Brownsville city commissioner and a leading voice of the hike-and-bike trail movement in the city. “There were no conversations to be had.”
There was no single breakthrough, said Gowen, an obstetrician/gynecologist. Over time, she said, local residents began to see the value of trails being put down all over the city and developers showed a willingness to have a dialogue over how Brownsville was changing to incorporate new thinking.
“It took the community speaking out and developers understanding the concept of what we were trying to create and designing differently,” Gowen said.
All the stops and starts finally culminated in mid-April of this year when Cameron County and the city of Brownsville signed a memorandum of understanding that marked an official compromise between the two sides. The stretch of the old railway path between FM 802 and Alton Gloor Boulevard will be a roadway and will seek to have a mixed use of retail and residential development between two of the city’s busiest streets. The portions from FM 802 to Skinner Elementary to the south and from Alton Gloor to the old Lula Sams campground to the north will become hike-and-bike trails.
There are still environmental studies to be done, as mandated by the Texas Department of Transportation. The total costs still needs to be calculated. But none of it would have been possible without the MOU between the city and county. Brownsville will continue to prosper with more development while adding another key piece to the approximately 15 miles of existing hike-and-bike trails in the city.
“I’m really proud of the people of Brownsville for embracing what we’re trying to do with trail development,” said Gowen, pointing to the Battlefield, Belden and Morrison road trails, and a new one being put down in the Southmost area. The uniqueness of the West Rail Trail is that it will go into the heart of the oldest parts of the city while also extending to segments of Brownsville’s west side that are currently lacking trails.
Gowen also knows from a medical perspective the impact hike-and-bike trails can make in the lives of her patients and the community she represents as a city commissioner.
“I can tell one of my patients you need to not only make better food choices but you need to exercise more,” she said. “In giving that advice, does my patient have access to parks and to good sidewalks? How can you do that (exercise) if you don’t have access to those things? Trails are an important piece to healthy communities.’’