Friday, September 27, 2013 by Michael Kanin

City Council postpones decision on 24-hour bicycle trails

Austin City Council members Thursday delayed until Oct. 17 a vote on whether to end 24-hour cyclist access to three segments of the city’s Hike and Bike Trail. In the meantime, Austin Police Department officials and representatives of the city’s biking community are expected to discuss differences over the extent of police patrol necessary for the pathways.

 

However, Mayor Lee Leffingwell appears to be the only Council member with interest in ending pilot access to the trails, a program begun after a June Council vote. Leffingwell was also the sole vote against postponing the item.

 

“I want the trails to be open too,” Leffingwell told his colleagues. “It’s just a matter of – like everything else – what can we afford to do and what are the priorities.”

 

Police deployment is at the heart of the issue. Austin Police officials maintain that they need officers to actively patrol the three trails. Council members, as part of the FY2014 budget process, defunded overtime allowances earmarked for 24-hour trail coverage. That action resulted in an APD plan to move nine District Representatives – popular community liaisons – from community duty and place them on trail coverage.

 

Bike Austin Executive Director Tom Wald argued that riding on the trails at night was a choice made by local bicyclists worried about street safety issues. He urged Council members to postpone the item. “It’s one consideration that this item be postponed for a month so that city staff can look into what best practices are in other cities,” he suggested.

 

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo defended the idea of staffed trail coverage Thursday. “People say, I’ll take the risk. Well they’re taking the risk but if they get themselves killed or – God forbid – something occurs, their family might have a different take,” he offered. “We would be remiss as police officers to say use the trails at your own risk.”

 

Acevedo also defended the notion of using district reps for trail coverage. “The bottom line is we have to have a presence (on the trails) and our recommendation…right now is we don’t want to take any first responders that are 911 responders.”

 

Council Member Bill Spelman continued to wonder whether the department actually needs the level of coverage it is calling for. He pointed to the fact that APD would offer some level of patrol on trails, even if access to them was not 24-hour. “From our point of view, the question is does opening the trails require this big an increase in the amount of police activity,” he said.

 

To that, Acevedo replied that “nine officers for the trails is not a very large number.”

 

Spelman pushed the issue, wondering how many full-time equivalent positions would be used to cover the trails when they are closed. Acevedo replied that he didn’t have that information. Spelman continued.

 

“If you could identify what that time is…it would probably be less… than nine FTEs worth of time wouldn’t it?” he asked.

 

“It’s hard to say,” Acevedo replied. “We’ve never tracked it.”

 

Council Member Chris Riley suggested that the mere opening of 24-hour trail access should not mean that additional police coverage is needed. He used a road-building metaphor, first employed by Acevedo.

 

“We often extend new roads and I don’t recall your being here, telling us at the time that when we open a new road that we needed to hire more cops to patrol that road,” Riley said.

 

“I think that road is already in existence and we already have dedicated resources 24/7 to that area,” Acevedo responded. “The parks do not have any dedicated services.”

 

Riley pushed on. “So to be clear, when we open a road, you don’t dedicate new officers to that road, necessarily. You just manage to cover it with the APD staff that is already in that area,” he said.

 

It remains unclear whether anything will change, should the issue will return. Leffingwell sponsored Thursday’s pitch to end 24-hour trail access. Council Member Kathie Tovo served as his co-sponsor. Earlier this week, Tovo told In Fact Daily that she did so mostly for to foster discussion.

 

“During the budget hearings I made the motion to eliminate $1.05 million in funding for police overtime associated with the 24-hr trails and suggested that we save for a future meeting the discussion about whether we should leave the trails open in the evenings to cyclists,” Tovo said at the time via email. “I co-sponsored the resolution so that we can have that public discussion about whether it’s appropriate to re-visit the decision to lift the curfew on the trails.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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