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Council: more study needed to decide whether to allow 24-hour trail use

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin City Council last week postponed until Jan. 17 a discussion on whether to open bike trails at night, a pilot program proposed by Council Member Chris Riley.


Riley wants to allow 24-hour access to the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, Shoal Creek Trail from Lady Bird Lake to West 38th Street and Johnson Creek Trail from Lady Bird Lake to Enfield Road.


Currently, city parks and trails close at 10pm, and the Austin Police Department enforces the curfew. However, APD doesn’t have dedicated trail coverage overnight and APD Assistant Chief Raul Munguia told City Council that all-night coverage would cost $2.8 million to $3.1 million per year. The higher amount is based on costs to pay officers overtime pay, while the other is based on hiring additional staff.


“We’re basically trying to cover an entire shift for the trails and that would be problematic,” said Munguia, who explained that opening the trails overnight would require two extra shifts seven days per week. “With the trails and number of miles that we are looking at, also the fact that the trails are very poorly lit at night, we are looking at 10 officers on each shift,” said Munguia.


“I will say that there are obvious safety issues associated with riding on our streets,” said Riley, who stated there are a already number of riders in Austin who see the trails as a safer nighttime option, the program would simply make that practice legal.


“This year, we’ve had three cyclists killed at night, all of whom were riding legally and safely on our city streets. For many, it seems odd that we would prohibit them from riding on a very calm, placid trail alongside the river, and insist that they face conditions on Riverside Drive and other streets where they are putting their life on the line,” said Riley.


Council Member Bill Spelman noted that opening the trails at night could prevent crime because it would probably mean more people on the trails and thereby more eyes scoping for illegal activity.


“Right now, we have people using all three of these trails all night long. I’ve used some of them myself,” said Spelman. “There’s a possibility that by making legal what is currently illegal, we will make it safer. If we spend $2.7 million to put more police on it, we will make it safer still, but we’re spending $2.7 million on a situation that is actually safer than it was before,” said Spelman.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that if the trails were officially opened at night city may face increased liabilities. However, Leffingwell was supportive of the program’s objective to increase safety for nighttime bicycle riders. But he wanted to explore ways to allow nighttime biking without the added expense.


Riley supported the postponement until January, which will give the city time to look at the costs associated with the program and to figure out whether the program could be scaled back.


Riley called the discussion “timely,” given construction has begun on the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk to fill a gap in the otherwise 10.1-trail and, thus, decisions will have to be made about its use.


“The expectation of many has been that that will be a 24-hour facility, just as our roads are 24-hour facilities,” said Riley.


“The Ann and Roy Butler Trail around the lake, the Shoal Creek Trail and the Johnson Creek Trail have all received federal transportation funding, and many do use them for transportation and have a reasonable expectation that the transportation infrastructure will be available at night, just as roads are.”

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