San Antonio’s most popular urban cycling route was cut off by last week’s closure of the so-called ‘Ghost Tracks’ by Union Pacific Railroad. The closure, which will last until Oct. 1, forces southbound cyclists to detour on to busy South Presa Road. A map produced by the City of San Antonio and a second one by the Rivard Report show the very few options cyclists can choose from in devising alternative routes south of the Missions.
The Ghost Tracks are the site of one of San Antonio’s most enduring urban legends, which you can read about here. Cyclists in the area are accustomed to seeing cars filled with teenagers and others parking their vehicles in neutral to watch them roll across the tracks to safety, propelled by the ghosts of children said to have died in a tragic school bus accident at the railroad crossing in the 1930s. The Rivard Report story published last week debunked the legend, which displeased a few readers but mostly evoked waves of nostalgia.
For cyclists, the closure is less about the disappearance of a Southside right of passage and more about staying safe on the most popular urban training route in the city.
There’s no avoiding a detour on to South Presa Road to reach Southton Road and the 4.3-mile ride down to the Shell Station turnaround. Groups of riders start at various locations, including the Pearl on Broadway, downtown, and from the Blue Star. The out-and-back route allows riders to get in a 25-35-mile training ride on weekday evenings.
San Antonio’s Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni said Monday that city officials are exploring ways to make the 1.4 mile stretch of South Presa Road between Graf Road near Mission San Juan and Southton Road safer for cyclists. That could include bike route signage like that seen on Mission Road to remind vehicle drivers to slow down and share the road, a mobile electronic sign showing vehicle speeds, and posting a reduced speed limit. There are no bike lanes south of the Missions, and many drivers do not realize cyclists have a legal right to the roadway.
Union Pacific officials obtained a city permit for the temporary closure starting Aug. 25 to construct a “siding track,” a new second rail line running parallel to Villamain Road that will run more than one mile and allow trains traveling in opposite directions to safely pass one another without undue delay. A Union Pacific spokesman said daily train traffic along the line has increased from 2-3 trains to 10-12 trains daily. That is due largely to the development of the $54 million Southton Rail Yard on Southton Road between Center Road and Salado Creek. Southton Road is the most heavily trafficked road on the popular cycling route due to the heavy truck traffic coming to and from the railyard, transporting loads of sand and other materials to Eagle Ford Shale drillers.
Industrial parks serviced by rail are developing on former farm land in Bexar County south of I-37 on Southton Road, so the once quiet back roads popular with cyclists will only grow more trafficked in the coming years. Until the housing bubble burst and led to the Great Recession, developers were buying up farmland and putting up single family home subdivisions marketed to first time home buyers. That activity is starting to pick back up, too.
Planners often think only about vehicle traffic when considering road closures. In this instance, Union Pacific’s construction work eliminated the well-known, neighborhood shortcut that takes riders safely from Mission San Juan to Southtown Road without venturing on to South Presa Street.
The closure could become a more serious issue in the cycling community given Union Pacific’s desire to permanently close the Ghost Tracks crossing at Villamain and Shane Roads. An informal request to explore a permanent closure with City and County officials was first made by a Union Pacific official in a January 2014 email. That request never became an official application for closure after city officials advised Union Pacific that any application for closure would have to include community engagement meetings.
Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3), whose district includes the Missions and the cycling routes discussed in this article, was one of the officials included in the email. Viagran said last week that she was surprised community engagement meetings were not held prior to the temporary closure, as she had been led to believe would happen.
Cycling from downtown along or near the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River is steadily growing in popularity as more and more people are drawn to the Mission District because of the area’s newfound designation as a World Heritage site. The Mission Reach sees the highest B-Cycle bikeshare usage, and more serious cyclists have long used the river and Mission Road as a popular urban training route.
The Ghost Tracks route allows cyclists to avoid South Presa Road at rush hour and at twilight, where speeding drivers represent a real risk. Even quieter roads like Villamain Road pose a risk to riders who share the road with vehicles on streets that do not have bike lanes. Two brothers died in the early morning hours of June 28 in a fiery crash on Villamain Road right near Graf Road. The driver lost control of their vehicle on a curve while traveling at a high rate of speed. The vehicle tore through a guard rail and exploded in flames after striking a tree and setting it afire. Everyday, cyclists pass the burned tree and an altar of flowers and candles left by family and friends.
The City’s map shows the most obvious alternate route: Cyclists on Mission Road who pass the entrance to Mission San Juan turn left on to Graf Road for the short jog to South Presa Street, and then ride 1.4 miles south to Southton Road and on to the Shell Station before turning back and retracing their route.
On a ride last week with the Third Street Grackles, we took a longer, alternative route (see Google Map above) that takes riders returning from the Shell Station west on Blue Wing Road, a quiet, less-traveled road that crosses the San Antonio River and then bends its way to FM 1937/South Flores Road. That takes riders to the point where South Flores and Roosevelt Boulevard meet. Riders then take a series of quick turns into a neighborhood that puts them back on less trafficked roads heading back to Mission San Juan, where the routes back into the city can be picked up again.
The Rivard Report will ask Union Pacific and the City of San Antonio to alert us in the event an application for permanent closure of the Ghost Tracks is made by the railroad, allowing the cycling community time to participate in any community engagement meetings.
*Featured/top image: The Ghost Tracks at Shane and Villamain Roads after Union Pacific Railroad began a new construction project. Photo by Robert Rivard.