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A U.S. and Mexican city want to build a cross-border bike trail

Matamoros. Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, are working on a two-state trail that would create an economic and arts district straddling the border.

In an electoral season filled with heated rhetoric about immigration, the conversation around the U.S.-Mexican border has focused on walls and how high to build them. But in two cities abutting the border, officials would rather talk about crossing the boundary with a bike trail.

Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, are, like many adjacent border towns, municipal siblings. Together, they form a metro area of more than a million people and an economic zone near the Gulf of Mexico that encompasses a deepwater port and numerous factories

Recently, the two cities have found common ground and collaborated on issues such as economic development and combating the Zika virus. But the possibility of a cross-border development project, as reported in Citiscope, may link them in a more concrete way, while creating an innovative cultural district.

Recently, Brownsville opened Linear Park, an 8-mile bike trail that threads along an abandoned rail line that runs through downtown. Planners on both sides of the border have discussed connecting that pathway to a potential trail in Matamoros, extending the arts district that’s blossomed on the U.S. side and creating a wider cultural corridor uniting both towns.

Matamoros planner Mauricio Ibarra and Brownsville’s assistant city manager Ruth Osuna began formulating the plan in earnest when, during a recent meeting, they noticed how close their respective trail projects were on a map.

The concept would transform an abandoned Union Pacific rail line on the Mexican side of the border into a trail and park, one that would become the centerpiece of a Matamoros arts and cultural district. That would then be linked via a bridge to the existing trail in Brownsville. Ibarra has called the combined project the "Centro Cultural Binacional," or binational cultural center.

Ibarra, who grew up in Brownsville, says he believes the trail program can help Matamoros develop and generate tourism, which suffered during a recent crime wave. Since the trail connector on the American side of the border would run adjacent to a U.S. consulate complex, under the control of the Marines, he believes security won’t be an issue.

The cities have begun discussing the plan informally, and a Mexican think tank, the National Urban Jurisprudence Association, has helped facilitate collaboration. Setting up the bike trail cultural district will likely require additional negotiations, and even a potentially new binational legal framework. But officials on both sides of the border see benefits in collaboration beyond a cultural district. Issues such as pollution, public health, and reducing wait times at crowded, congested border crossings, which inhibit trade, could be improved with better city-to-city collaboration.

"Everybody is trying to separate us," Osuna told Citiscope. "But we keep coming together."