Building a vital green connection for our city
Spine Trail to bring 50-mile Dallas loop closer to reality
The Circuit Trail Conservancy will begin its first construction next month with work on the Spine Trail’s first phase, which runs from just below White Rock Lake to the southeast corner of the Tenison Park golf complex near Samuell Boulevard. Its opening is expected in 12 to 18 months. (Lola Gomez/Staff Photographer)

Walk a few yards down the rough dirt path alongside Military Parkway’s E-Z Tires — a part of southeast Dallas where even at 9 a.m. it’s easier to find a quart of whiskey than a decent tomato.

Look beyond the graveyards of abandoned tires and burned-out vehicles, of forlorn Christmas tinsel and children’s books. Beyond the dozen or more encampments of people living off the grid in tents and RVs.

In front of you unfolds a diamond in the rough, a breathtaking, if mostly inaccessible greenspace alongside White Rock Creek, hundreds of acres of tall grassland bordered by woods thick with oak and elm.

Longtime neighbor Casie Pierce sees all that. Now she and the other nearby residents also see evidence that the city’s decades-long promise of economic opportunity and quality-of-life amenities might begin to come true in this spot.

The catalyst is the 7.5-mile Trinity Forest Spine Trail, the most significant remaining piece of the 50-mile loop through Dallas that the Circuit Trail Conservancy has been working to make a reality since 2016.

The Spine Trail will fill a gap between two of the city’s green giants: White Rock Lake and the Great Trinity Forest.

For the first time, walkers, runners and bicyclists who live south of Interstate 30 will be able to safely access some of the city’s most popular north-side greenspaces. Ditto for those in the north who want to walk or ride in southern Dallas’ myriad pastoral settings.

The Spine Trail, accompanied by a $36 million investment, is also a bold statement of the need to connect often-overlooked communities — both those in Far East Dallas and the southeast and southern parts of the city.

“The more you study this corridor, the more you see that there are almost no connections that aren’t major roadways,” Philip Hiatt Haigh, executive director of the Circuit Trail Conservancy, said as we walked with Pierce and others Tuesday morning. “There are no connections that feel like you are being brought together.”

Pierce, who lives in the nearby Parkdale neighborhood and led efforts to build soft-surface trails in the Great Trinity Forest, said that, once the Spine Trail exists, she and other residents “won’t have to use a car to get out of our neighborhoods.”

Being able to access White Rock Lake and the Trinity Forest is huge, Pierce said. “But this is more … this green space is our asset, our economic development engine.”

Partnership approval

In 2018, the Dallas City Council approved a partnership with the Circuit Trail Conservancy to create the Loop Trail by filling in the holes among 39 miles of existing trails. Four conservancy-led projects will add the necessary 11 miles of new trail and connectors.

The nonprofit will begin its first construction next month with work on the Spine Trail’s first phase, which runs from just below White Rock Lake to the southeast corner of the Tenison Park golf complex near Samuell Boulevard. Its opening is expected in 12 to 18 months.

My Tuesday walk was in the heart of the Spine Trail’s second phase, a 3.4-mile stretch of mostly city-owned land from Samuell to the Lawnview DART station on Scyene Road. Design for this phase should be finished by the end of 2021; it could open by June 2023.

Next will come the final Spine Trail piece, from Lawnview to the Lake June DART station and connecting with the city’s Complete Street project at Pemberton Hill Road. That route will allow thousands of residents in Pleasant Grove and points south to access the Loop Trail.

Hiatt Haigh, who joined the nonprofit in 2019, has his eye on several federal funding opportunities that he believes will allow that third phase to open soon after phase two.

The four projects under the Circuit Trail Conservancy’s agreement with the city are estimated at $75 million. Of that, $43 million has been raised: $20 million from the city’s 2017 bond package, $10 million from private donations and $13 million between the county and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The City Council on Wednesday green-lighted another of those four efforts, the Hi Line Connector, which will link the Katy Trail to the Design District and Trinity Strand Trail.

Next up in the conservancy’s queue: The Trinity Gateway will be the Loop Trail’s connection to West Dallas. The Skyline Trail Link will connect the Cedar Crest and Joppa communities and the Great Trinity Forest to the Santa Fe Trestle Trail.

The Hi Line agreement came with the awarding of $11.5 million in tax increment financing, or TIF, funds. That’s a big win for the overall project because it means more of the $20 million in bond money can be used in places such as the Spine Trail, which don’t have the same economic base.

Bigger investment

While the Circuit Trail Conservancy focuses on completing the Loop, other groups have ramped up efforts for community gateway trails in various spots across the city that will provide access to it.

Hiatt Haigh noted that the $36 million Spine Trail tag is twice what the master plan estimated. “This is a much bigger investment than originally planned because we want it to have the quality and accessibility that these neighborhoods deserve,” he said.

The Circuit Trail Conservancy seems focused on all the right details. For example, designs with an eye to durability and ease of maintenance for the city — which will operate the Loop Trail — and plantings that are appropriate for areas that flood frequently.

Because much of the Spine Trail’s path will run through the White Rock Creek floodplain, most of it will be built above grade, on berms that should make it accessible virtually year-round.

Any of us who use the White Rock Creek Trail north of the lake, one of the first the city built, will attest to the deficiencies of building at grade level: Flooding means debris that makes the trail impassable much of the time.

Another of the challenges the Spine Trail span will face in coming months is relocating the people who are living in well-established encampments throughout the floodplain.

Kevin Oden, with Dallas’ Office of Integrated Public Safety Solutions, said the city will need to find ways “to help people already out here to find services and other options that will create meaningful change for them.”

The hope is that all the construction activity and later the activation of the trail will curtail quality-of-life problems such as the rampant illegal dumping. The city and conservancy expect that installing safety features found elsewhere in the trail system — lighting, markers and good sight lines — will be a crime deterrent.

Looking for friends

Hiatt Haigh’s group worked extensively with neighbors in devising phase one of the Spine Trail and will do the same with the next sections.

He hopes that outreach also leads to one or more “friends groups” that will support the trail, similar to Friends of the Santa Fe Trail.

So far, he’s heard nothing but excitement from neighborhoods. “They’ve been wanting — demanding — something like this for so long,” Hiatt Haigh said.

“We’ve been waiting for this for 40 years,” Pierce interjected. “That’s how long the city and county have been talking about it.”

There’s a lot that feels right about the Spine Trail planning, but I’m keenly aware that too often work in our city’s greenspaces has gotten it all wrong.

In particular, naturalist and conservation advocate Ben Sandifer has long expressed concerns about proposals related to trail systems within the Great Trinity Forest — dating back to years before the Circuit Trail Conservancy was formed.

Among Sandifer’s many worries is that the new Spine Trail won’t be constructed “up to snuff with the Americans with Disability Act.” Hiatt Haigh said the project will conform to that criteria, although he noted that the Texas Accessibility Standards are the governing rules in this state.

Sandifer told me Thursday that whenever work is done in these delicate natural places, the city’s track record leaves him worried it won’t happen “in a respectful way where the forest or other greenspaces is the client.”

He ticked off several trail projects that he says the city has abandoned over the years — always in communities that are disadvantaged and where people are “sorely missing what those of us north of I-30 enjoy every day.”

Sandifer is hardly the only one worn out by the legacy of “Oops, we got it wrong again. We’ll get it right next time” moments. This is the kind of hard project that the city too often has failed to deliver.

The Circuit Trail Conservancy is determined that won’t be the case with the Loop. Let’s all of us — as advocates both of southern Dallas and of the city’s greenspaces — watch carefully to make sure that indeed this time is different.

Twitter: @SharonFGrigsby