The Trail Foundation, which has spearheaded efforts to improve the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, could take over management of 200 acres of city parkland along the popular downtown pathway.
The city’s Parks and Recreation Department now serves as the primary steward of the 16-mile trail, made up of a 10-mile loop around Lady Bird Lake, plus six associated crossings and a handful of spurs. It spends about $1 million per year to maintain the crushed granite route, mow the grass and trim trees surrounding it, and manage storm water runoff.
Staff members from the foundation and the city say shifting the operations and management of the parkland could ease the pressure on a financially strained parks department. Trail Foundation officials say the transfer could also streamline the process for making improvements to the trail, where thousands of people go to run, bike and take in views of the city.
A panel of national experts representing the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps cities plan responsible land use, will gather in Austin starting Aug. 25 to study the feasibility of the transfer.
Since its creation in 2003, The Trail Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to maintain and enhance the trail, has invested more than $11.3 million on ecological restoration and projects including new restrooms, the boardwalk beneath Interstate 35 and the expanded bulb-out beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge. It’s currently working on three major projects: a planned renovation of the underpass of the Drake Bridge at First Street, new restrooms at Festival Beach and restoration of the slope in front of the Four Seasons.
Until now, The Trail Foundation has identified what improvements were needed along the trail, partnered with the city to build them, then handed over the finished projects.
“We raised the money, hired the architects. It was our project until ribbon cutting, then we’d gift it to the city and walk away,” said Heidi Anderson, executive director of The Trail Foundation.
The responsibility for maintenance of those projects, from restrooms to the boardwalk, then fell to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. That has increasingly become a burden, Anderson said.
Officials say the move could relieve pressure on a department that’s stretched thin trying to manage the city’s more than 300 parks, 227 miles of trail and 20,000 acres of greenspace.
“We’ve long been eager to look at creative financing opportunities, but now it’s becoming not really optional,” said Kim McKnight, acting assistant director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. “PARD has been and will continue to be eager to explore partnerships we think help us leverage outside funding, and relationships with nonprofits are one of the primary ways we do that.”
Under new property tax reform laws that go into effect Jan. 1, a city’s property tax revenue cannot increase more than 3.5% year over year without approval from voters. Officials have said Austin will see an estimated $58 million gap between revenue and expenses by 2024.
At the same time, the city and its demand for greenspace continues to grow. Austin’s current population of about 980,000 now is expected to double by 2040.
The trail gets more than 4 million visits each year, up from 2.6 million a year in 2016. That’s an average of 8,000 people per day and up to 15,000 on peak days, according to The Trail Foundation statistics.
“(The city’s) resources are declining at the same time trail use is growing,” Anderson said.
The Trail Foundation has a demonstrated track record of success and has worked with the parks department for many years to make capital improvements, McKnight said. “It’s a natural progression to see how they can play a larger role in how our department can manage operations and maintenance.”
Even if the city transfers the operations and maintenance of the land to The Trail Foundation, it will remain city-owned property.
“This will always be public parkland,” Anderson said. “This is not privatization at all. This is just relieving pressure on the Parks and Recreation Department.”
If the transfer takes place, the foundation would need to increase its staff size, Anderson said. That would likely happen in phases. It would also have to ramp up fundraising efforts.
“We can’t go from eight people to 30 people in a year,” Anderson said. “And as we take on more, our fundraising has to grow in parallel.”
Officials have not yet determined exactly what land would be affected by any transfer. While the trail itself would be covered, it’s unclear if areas like Vic Mathias Shores, formerly Auditorium Shores, would be affected.
“Those are discussions we’re having now," Anderson said. "Ultimately, we’d end up with a license agreement with the city that would outline everything the city does and everything we do.”
Similar public-private partnerships have grown increasingly common throughout the country. Central Park in New York City blazed the way in the 1980s. Today the city handles emergency services at that park, but the Central Park Conservancy manages the grounds. The Highline in New York City and Buffalo Bayou in Houston also operate under similar plans, and in Austin, Waller Creek, Republic Square and Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum operate under such public-private partnerships.
“This is the direction of the future because parks departments just can’t fund themselves anymore,” Anderson said.
Members of the Central Park Conservancy are serving as mentors in the case of Austin’s Butler Hike and Bike Trail, and The Trail Foundation has hired consultant Tim Marshall with ETM Associates in New Jersey to help guide the potential transfer.
The city and the foundation shared the $25,000 cost to bring in the Urban Land Institute panel, which will spend a week studying the issues surrounding a transfer, touring the trail and interviewing stakeholders from the mayor to the person who mows the grass along the trail before preparing a report for the city. They’ll consider everything from liability to timing of the transfer, funding recommendations and prioritizing maintenance projects.
The panel is being conducted in conjunction with the 10-Minute Walk Campaign, a national movement with the mission of making sure urban Americans live within a 10-minute walk of a park.
The public is invited to hear the panel’s findings at 10:15 a.m. Aug. 30 in the special events room at the Austin Central Library, 710 Cesar Chavez St.