While Northeast Texas Trail enthusiasts celebrate the official opening day for the 2019 trail season April 13, Northeast Texas Trail backers cautiously await word from the 86th Legislature announcing the 130-mile recreational trail will become a Texas Parks & Wildlife linear park.
The trail extends from Farmersville to the west and New Boston to the east and traverses seven counties and 19 rural communities. Backers expect it to bring an influx of hikers and bikers, pouring tourism dollars into the much needed Northeast Texas economy.
Bills filed by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Midlothian, and state Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, are in committee awaiting movement to respective legislative bodies.
“The trail stretches almost the entire length of my district and represents one of the greatest opportunities for potential economic impact,” VanDeaver said when he filed a bill in December.
When completed, the Northeast Texas Trail will be the longest recreational trail in Texas and the fourth longest in the United States, according to an in-kind feasibility study performed in 2014 by the HWH Group of Paris for the Northeast Texas Trail Coalition.
“Under current conditions, portions of the trail are in excellent shape, while others are almost impassable,” VanDeaver noted.
Although work on parts of the trail goes back more than 15 years, the push for the Northeast Texas Trail gained momentum with the formation of the Northeast Texas Trail Coalition in 2011. Since that time, several million federal and state dollars have been awarded to private and governmental entities along the route; however, each award comes with a local funding match.
“With current funding structures, it will take years to have the entire length of the trail in good condition,” VanDeaver said.
Only a small portion of the trail has an asphalt base while other areas have crushed rock or gravel. Large sections are barely cleared with no base, according to an interactive map on the Coalition website at netexastrail.org.
“The goal is to have the trail become a state park, which will make it eligible for state funding for improvements and maintenance through the state parks system,” VanDeaver said.
While VanDeaver’s legislation calls for an interim study to be completed before the Legislature meets for its 2021 session, Hughes’ bill calls for immediate action effective Sept. 1.
Hughes’ bill instructs the Texas Department of Transportation to acquire the linear park through a long-term lease with the municipality or county that controls each section of the trail. The transportation department also is to complete the conversion of the former railroad right-of-way, along with other improvements, and to maintain the trail.
The Texas Department of Wildlife, in conjunction with the transportation department, is to conduct a study with regard to the operation of the park, and submit results no later than Sept. 1, 2021, to standing House and Senate committees with park jurisdiction.
Adding to the push to become a state park, the trail is included in a recently released Texas Bicycle Tourism Trails Study as part of a major bicycle route through north and northeast Texas.
The trail is included in an example of a “cross-state spine,” which is a route of statewide significance that connects to another state and links major metropolitan areas, according to a TxDOT report released in July 2018.
“This is of major significance for NETT and something I’ve been talking with our legislators about,” Northeast Texas Trail Coalition Executive Director Jack Neal said.
“We should be the first place TxDOT considers in getting that plan up and running,” Neal added. “NETT is free and clear while other areas in the plan are in pretty expensive places to be buying land for a trail.”
The trail’s inclusion in the study makes for yet another argument for the Texas Legislature to include the Northeast Texas Trail in the state parks system, Neal said.