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Council reluctantly votes to end overnight access to bicycle trails

Friday, October 25, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council members voted Thursday to end the pilot program that had opened portions of the city’s urban trails to bikes overnight, though many members expressed frustration about the position the issue put them in.


Council members had the options of either leaving the trails open or consenting to remove officers from the city’s popular District Representative program to man the trails overnight. Faced with that choice, the majority of Council voted to end the program, with Council Member Chris Riley casting the lone vote of dissent.


Though they did not vote with him, several Council members spoke in support of Riley’s stand.


“I admire Council Member Riley for taking a principled stance, but unfortunately I can’t support it because I will be labeled as having told the chief (APD Chief Art Acevedo) that he was wrong, that I want to spend a million dollars to support 10 bicyclists, and on and on and on,” said Council Member Mike Martinez.


“We keep hearing that if we vote on this, Council is voting to get rid of DRs (District Representatives.) That’s the only thing you are going to hear about. None of that is true. None of that is fact. It is opinion, and we’ve been presented with a false choice. It’s another example, in my opinion, of an issue where if some folks don’t want it to happen, they are going to do everything they can to keep this Council from making a policy decision to have something occur in their city,” said Martinez. “I think that it’s sad that this is the state that we have come to.”


He did not mention Mayor Lee Leffingwell but Leffingwell spoke to that point, saying not only was there no plot against the program, but the opposite was true and there were a great number of people who tried to find solutions to the problem.


In an impassioned monologue, Riley defended the pilot program, explaining that both cyclist and motor vehicle fatalities in Austin had risen sharply over the last year, and the trails were a  much safer alternative for late-night cyclists than the streets.


“Some 95 percent (of bike riders) say that they would continue to ride without police patrols. They are not asking for police protection. All they are asking is that they are not considered criminals. That is their simple request: that they not be considered criminals for using alternative transportation and for choosing the safest alternative for them and their families,” said Riley.


Riley noted that the pilot program did not spark a descent into chaos, and said that the “concept of adjusting to this sort of expanded territory should not be so foreign.” He noted that earlier in the meeting, Council had annexed 3,857 acres, without a corresponding cost for policing the area.


Riley said that a similar expansion was all that cyclists were seeking in opening the trails but, instead, the police saw it as necessary to gut one of the city’s favorite programs – the District Representative program.


“City management has chosen to put that on the chopping block because their resistance to this program and this policy change is so great,” said Riley. “I want to be clear. That is a city management decision, which I think is very unfortunate, but I respect the authority of city management and our police chief to make those sorts of decisions…But I reserve the right to express my own personal opinion that it is a mistake.”


Martinez also supported that point, rhetorically.


“I also don’t like the insinuation that we somehow disrespect our police chief when we disagree with him. That is absolutely not true. We just don’t agree on the management decision that was made to rectify this issue,” said Martinez. “I dispel the notion that just because an expert, or a chief, or the City Manager or the budget officer presents something to us as a way to handle something that we have to defer. It is our role and responsibility as policymakers to question and come up with alternatives if we see that it’s appropriate.”


Council Member Kathie Tovo thanked Riley for his work on the issue, and echoed his findings that other cities are able to use bike trails without curfews without encountering these kinds of hurdles  or needing increased police patrols. Tovo said that was the direction that Austin should be headed in as well.


“I am regretfully supporting this today, because, as my colleagues have articulated, we are really in a dilemma here of being faced with a false choice,” said Tovo.

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