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A new “mini-boardwalk” quietly opened this week on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail, ahead of schedule and under budget.
The gently curved, 172-foot stretch of elevated trail, on the north side of Lady Bird Lake beneath the Ann Richards-Congress Avenue Bridge, replaces a narrow, decaying wooden structure that stood for more than 40 years. Thursday, as construction workers put finishing touches on handrails and cleared away debris, trail users walked, ran and bicycled across the gleaming new walkway.
“This is incredible,” said Billy Swarm, 48, an American Airlines employee who lives downtown and was taking his dog GiGi for her daily walk. “It was too small before.”
Construction began in March to replace the old wooden bridge, just 6 feet wide in places and with a blind corner that put some trail users on a collision course with one another. The new 14-foot wide concrete and steel structure takes trail users out over the water and eliminates a bottleneck. The privately funded project also includes a viewing platform where people can rest, watch the bats emerge from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge during summer months, or just take in the sights.
Officials with The Trail Foundation, which spearheaded the project, called it a priority, and work on it wrapped up a week ahead of schedule. The foundation is a non-profit organization that works to maintain and enhance the 10-mile loop around Lady Bird Lake. An official opening ceremony is set for 10:30 a.m. May 31 on the new portion of trail.
“This new wider, safer bridge and bat-viewing deck has been in the works since we completed the boardwalk project in 2014 and improves a stretch of the trail that hasn’t been touched in 40 years,” said Heidi Anderson, executive director of The Trail Foundation. “The Ann And Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail is the heart and soul of Austin. It’s our gym, it’s our church, it’s where we go for recreation and meditation, exercise and fellowship.”
Robert F. Smith, 55, founder of Austin-based private equity firm Vista Equity Partners in Austin, donated $1.25 million to kick start the $2.5-million project. The rest of the money came from private donations, according to Trail Foundation officials.
Anderson said the project came in under budget, but said officials did not have an exact figure yet because they are still closing it out. Any money saved on the project will go toward other upcoming projects, announced earlier this year.
The Trail Foundation collaborated with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department on the project. It also worked closely with Bat Conservation International to design the structure so it doesn’t disturb the Mexican free-tailed bats that roost beneath the bridge.
The Butler Trail sees 2.6 million visits a year, according to statistics from the Trail Foundation, and that number is expected to increase as more people move to Austin. The new bridge marks the nonprofit organization’s biggest project since the 1.3-mile boardwalk was installed beneath Interstate 35 in 2014.