Fred Zapalac rides his bicycle from Oak Forest to the Heights and back on a daily basis, utilizing the White Oak Bayou Greenway to commute from his home to the cycling shop he owns on Yale Street.
In a few years, some of his neighbors might be able to commute by bike all the way to Houston’s Energy Corridor. Or perhaps they’ll ride out west just for fun.
Construction began last week on a new hike-and-bike trail in Spring Branch, which has been a missing link in the city’s growing system of interconnected paths for cyclists and walkers. The long-term goal of the project, which is being funded by the Spring Branch Management District (SBMD) and executed by the Houston Parks Board (HPB), is to connect the White Oak Bayou trail to the east with the Addicks Reservoir trail to the west.
“I think it’s a game-changer for our city,” said Zapalac, the owner of Blue Line Bike Lab at 1504 Yale St. “Not only does that open it up for recreational riding, but if it gets out to Addicks, it opens it up for safer cycling commutes for people inside the loop who want to commute out to the Energy Corridor. Right now, there’s no way to get out to the Energy Corridor.”
Such a multi-modal future is a shared vision between the SBMD and HPB, which collaborated after realizing they both wanted to build a trail through the burgeoning West Houston neighborhood. SBMD deputy executive director Josh Hawes said it figures to be an attractive amenity for Spring Branch residents because it will wind past schools, restaurants and other businesses, and he said it also should bring more Houstonians into the area.
For the nonprofit HPB, it’s a way to create more recreational opportunities for citizens while making the city more easily traversable for those who prefer bikes to automobiles. The HPB also is nearing completion of Bayou Greenways 2020, a transformative public-private project that aims to create 3,000 acres of greenspace along Houston’s watersheds along with 150 miles of connected trails.
“We know particularly during the (COVID-19) pandemic, people have really needed these parks and open spaces for their mental health,” said Beth White, president and CEO of the Houston Parks Board. “Lots use the trails to get to and from work and run their errands. We see the system growing more and more popular with people.”
Pat Maddox, a volunteer board member for the SBMD who helped spearhead the construction of the trail at Terry Hershey Park in the 1980s, said the new initiative has received near-unanimous support in Spring Branch. The SBMD is funded by annual assessments to commercial property owners within the district of 10 cents per $100 valuation.
Hawes said the first segment of the trail, a 2.4-mile stretch between Blalock Road and Wirt Road, will cost about $2.5 million to complete and should be finished by the end of this year. He said the entire trail project, which spans about 7 miles through Spring Branch and 11 miles in total, could take at least three years to complete and cost at least $7 million.
Hawes said the SBMD hired the HPB because of its expertise in trail-building and to help ensure its 10-foot wide concrete trail would match others around the city. HPB also has permission to utilize the existing CenterPoint Energy easement that will serve as the trail route through Spring Branch – between Kempwood Drive to the north and Hammerly Boulevard to the south – per a 2014 agreement between the city and the utility company.
White said the HPB has only been contracted to complete the first segment of the trail but is open to constructing the other four segments as well.
“We’re delighted to be their partner in designing and constructing the trail,” White said of the SBMD. “We’re more than happy to talk about achieving their overall goal of 11 miles.”
Hawes said the second segment of the trail project will be further to the west toward the Addicks Reservoir. He said connecting the Spring Branch trail to the one along White Oak Bayou, which runs through Oak Forest and Shady Acres into the Heights, will be the last segment and “most difficult” to complete.
That part of the trail would be outside the footprint of the SBMD, and White said the HPB hasn’t yet figured out how to connect the two paths. Between them is two freeways – Loop 610 and U.S. 290.
“It’s absolutely doable,” White said.
Wherever the Spring Branch trail connects to the White Oak Bayou path, and whenever that happens, avid cyclists such as Zapalac will be glad.
“All these connected trails are really what makes the system viable,” he said. “I’m all for it and extremely grateful for the Spring Branch Management District for spearheading that.”