A proposed 180-mile, 100% on-road bicycle route, connecting the downtowns of Houston and Austin — as well as a dozen communities in between — gained substantial momentum in November as the result of two recent events.
The Old Texas Highway 20 Houston to Austin On-Road Intercity Bicycle Route is just the first in the pipeline of a number of projects that are envisioned to create a statewide network of signed and promoted bicycle routes, mostly on-road. These routes will connect Texas cities, towns, rural communities, historic sites, parks and other points of interest.
The initiative was codified when the 2005 legislature passed a bill entitled Texas Bicycle Tourism Trails. In updating Section 201.9025 of the Texas Transportation Code, the legislature called for recommendations of bicycle routes that “reflect the geography, scenery, history, and cultural diversity of this state.”
A November 17 workshop in Giddings, Texas was co-sponsored by the Giddings Economic Development Corporation and the TBC. Guest speaker Bob Daigh, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Austin District Engineer, explained TxDOT’s charge to “develop transportation systems that foster economic development.” He endorsed the proposed Old Texas 20 bicycle route as a way of fulfilling that charge. Staff from the office of U.S. Congressman Michael McCaul also spoke in support of the project. Representative McCaul’s 10th Texas District extends from northwest Harris County into East Austin, covering about 80% of the proposed route.
More than 50 area stakeholders attended the workshop, representing communities along the route such as Giddings, Elgin, Brenham, Waller and Manor—as well as Houston and Austin. The overwhelming consensus of the group was to take the next steps of involving communities in the development of the bicycle route.
On November 29, the TxDOT Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) voted to recommend the Old Texas 20 Bicycle Route for Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) designation as the first official Texas Bicycle Tourism Route pursuant to the 2005 legislation.
Old Texas Highway 20 was one of the first state highways built in the 1920s by the then newly-formed Texas Highway Commission. Generally hugging the old Houston & Texas Central Railroad from Houston to Austin, the highway passed through the centers of Hempstead, Brenham, Giddings, Elgin, Manor and other communities. By the 1960s, the much-straighter US 290 was completed by mostly bypassing those town centers. Much of Old Texas Highway 20 was then decommissioned and reverted to the calm, scenic county roads that still exist today!
These often bucolic roads are the heart of the proposed 180-mile bicycle tourism route. Communities are recognizing that the route has a high “repeatability” factor. Rather than having a “been there-done that” mentality, bicycle tourists are expected to view the route as a source of rejuvenation, like a favorite lake or state park. TBC is also promoting the active-living and alternative transportation value of the route to communities, by stressing that quality-of-life is now a key factor in the location decisions made by businesses, families and retirees.
While the route is currently passable by experienced cyclists, initial steps such as paving gravel sections of county routes will make the route much more functional, and these initial steps can occur while the more formal signed route is being planned and implemented. Of the more than 100 miles of county roads that formerly made up Old Texas Highway 20, about 15 miles — in six segments in three counties — are gravel or broken pavement. Funding for initial improvements is being sought from several sources. The “funding road” is pretty rocky these days, but TBC believes the value of the project will secure the dollars needed to move forward.
The Houston-to-Austin route is viewed by the Giddings workshop participants as a spine for other infrastructure, including area on-road bicycle loops, local off-road track and equestrian trails. Texas Equestrian Trail Riders Association (TETRA) members who live on the Old Texas 20 route (including the president-elect) also attended the workshop.
One very valuable outcome of the Giddings workshop is the partnership between the Giddings Economic Development Corporation (GEDC) and the TBC. While working on the launch of a major downtown revitalization project that involves three old railroad stations, the Giddings group discovered that the Old Texas Highway 20 ran right through the proposed complex. Now, plans for an in-town bikeway are being incorporated into the Union Station Transportation Museum and Visitors Center project. The Rural Texas Tourism Center (RTTC) will also be housed there.
Joyce Bise, GEDC Director, will use the RTTC as the vehicle to facilitate collaboration among communities along the route. “The Old Texas Highway 20 Bike Route is a perfect fit for this tourism plan,” reports Bise, “and the community anticipates great benefits.”
GEDC and TBC anticipate that this effort will result in a model for other rural Texas communities to follow with regard to other Texas Bicycle Tourism initiatives. Representatives associated with routes such as El Camino Real de los Tejas and the Buffalo Soldier Heritage and Forts Trails attended the Giddings workshop as observers and are preparing similar efforts in their regions.