For years, runners, hikers and cyclists using the trail around Lady Bird Lake encountered a bottleneck as they passed beneath the north end of the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge.
The Butler Hike and Bike Trail narrows at the spot, and an old bridge, just 6-feet wide in spots, turns sharply. Anyone who didn’t pay attention could end up on a collision course with someone coming from the opposite direction.
But not for much longer.
Construction began at the site this week to replace that more than 40-year-old structure with a sleek 172-foot “mini-boardwalk” that will take users out over the water. Besides a 14-foot-wide bridge, the privately funded project includes a viewing platform where people can rest, watch the bats emerge during summer months or just take in the sights.
“It’s really significant, because the trail skinnies down at that point,” said Dean Glenesk, president of the board of directors of the Trail Foundation. “We’re all about making the trail accessible and safe.”
Robert F. Smith, 55, co-founder of Austin-based private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, donated $1.25 million to kick-start the $2.5-million project. According to Forbes magazine, Smith has a current net worth of $4.4 billion.
“Those of us lucky enough to call Austin home, and the many visitors to this city, use the Butler Trail at Lady Bird Lake every single day,” Smith said in a news release. “An investment in the trail is an investment in Austin’s future — one that will keep our most cherished outdoor asset safe, accessible and enjoyable for many years to come.”
The rest of the project’s money, which has already been raised, comes from private donations, according to Trail Foundation officials.
The new concrete and steel bridge will do more than just improve safety at a dangerous point on the trail, said Heidi Anderson, executive director of the Trail Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to maintain and enhance the Butler Trail, a 10-mile loop around the lake.
“It’s not just a solution to a problem. It’s a new thread of community, a new destination on the trail,” she said.
The new bridge marks the nonprofit organization’s biggest project since the 1.3-mile boardwalk was installed beneath Interstate 35 in 2014. Barring any construction delays, the new bridge under Congress Avenue should open by June, Anderson said.
The popular pathway will remain open during construction, although a brief detour is planned near the end of the project, when crews connect the bridge to the existing trail and remove the wooden decking of the existing bridge. For roughly two weeks, trail users will be rerouted up and across Congress Avenue.
The Trail Foundation is collaborating with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department on the project. It also has 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.
Freese & Nichols Inc. created the design and completed permitting for the project. Jay-Reese Contractors is building the structure. So far, crews have drilled for underwater support beams just offshore of where the bridge will go. The improvements will make the area wheelchair-accessible and provide connectivity to the Waller Creek area.
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.