A project by Austin Public Works converting more than six miles of abandoned rail line in South Austin to an all-access urban trail is shifting into the next gear this month — and although it’s not too flashy, the plan has the potential to bring some downtown-style urban design improvements to the region south of Highway 290, which often comes up a little short in the walkability department. The Bergstom Spur, an abandoned rail corridor branching off from the city’s main Union Pacific line at Vinson Drive and running 6.5 miles eastward to Highway 183 near the airport, provided freight access to the former Bergstrom Air Force Base until it closed in 1993. After that, the trains stopped running, as you might have noticed if you’ve ever paid attention to the condition of the rails where they cross the streets in this area:
That former corridor reaches 50 feet wide in some areas, providing the Public Works department’s Urban Trails Program with a unique opportunity to build continuous protected trails for walking and wheeling through the area, while also preserving space for potential transit improvements in future decades — that part obviously intrigues us, but for now the focus is on improving this passage for hikers and bikers.
What’s particularly interesting about the Bergstrom Spur is its path directly through the St. Elmo region of South Austin, a rapidly-developing industrial area with a growing residential and retail presence that seems poised to deliver the city a major new neighborhood and entertainment district — not to mention the connections it creates to other industrial sectors along its path east of I-35. Providing safe pedestrian access through this region away from the street is a game-changer for the generally suburban environment south of 290, and combined with the added transit improvements of Project Connect in this area, the trail could really open things up.
Anyway, now that we’ve hopefully sold you on the trail, it’s time to make you get involved for just a minute. The Public Works Department’s currently at a 60 percent design phase for the western and central segments of the trail, and that includes the all-important stretch through St. Elmo. The project team is hosting a virtual open house and survey through October 16, looking for community feedback from viewers like you — the beautiful, big-brained people who read this site and care about urban design, walkability, transit, and so on. Viewing the open house and filling out the survey will help the team develop the trail layout, including all-important features like the design of the trail at its 17 separate crossings of city streets.
Once you’ve viewed the open house, either with the embedded window above or at this link, take a few minutes to fill out the survey and tell the city your priorities. With the full trail expected to open by 2026, they need to figure all this stuff out pretty fast.