Monday, July 7, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Short-handed Planning Commission fails to endorse bicycle, trails plans

A depleted city Planning Commission was unable to approve either a new city Bicycle Master Plan or an Urban Trails Master Plan last month.

Though a majority of commissioners present (four) voted to approve the Bicycle Master Plan, a no vote from Commissioner Brian Roark sank the idea. Because the Planning Commission consists of nine members, the plans require five votes of support to pass, no matter how many commissioners are present for the vote.

The Urban Trails Master Plan failed by a vote of 2-3, with Chair Danette Chimenti and Commissioners Nuria Zaragoza and Roark voting in opposition. Commissioners Stephen Oliver, James Nortey and Jean Stevens were absent, and one position was unfilled at the time.

All in all, it was a bad day for bicyclists.

Early in the discussion of the Bicycle Master Plan, Roark asked about a recent installation of a bike lane along his own commute, which he said removed a car lane on Guadalupe Street. He asked if they had done a “cost-benefit analysis” that evaluated inconvenience to drivers when there was no one using the bike lane.

Nathan Wilkes, who works in the city’s bicycle program, explained that they removed a lane for bus travel along that road and that they added the bicycle lane later. Wilkes added that while there were cases when a bike lane could take over a lane of car travel, it was something that took place on underutilized roads, and at the community’s request. Neither of these explanations seemed to soothe Roark, who ultimately voted against the plan.

“I just think the money could be better spent, on more needed services that are actually going to be utilized, than an empty lane,” said Roark.

The bicycle plan is one component of the Urban Trails Master Plan. The proposed, decades-long build out of the proposed trails comes with a price tag of about $155 million. That would finance the construction of 200 miles of on-street bike lanes ($66 million) and 44 prioritized miles of urban trails ($89 million.) For comparison, a project adding a toll road on MoPac between Cesar Chavez and Parmer Lane – a distance of 13.5 miles – will cost about $200 million.

In her presentation about the Urban Trails Master Plan, the project coordinator of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program, Nadia Barrera explained the process that would take place before constructing an urban trail, if the master plan was ultimately approved. The process was extensive, involving a preliminary engineering report that includes a stakeholder process, a permitting process that includes feedback from the Planning and Development Review department, the Watershed Protection Department, the Parks and Recreation Department and a design phase that may go through the boards and commissions process and, finally, approval from City Council.

The plans lay out potential trails development. However, specific projects would still require further approval.

Barrera also stressed that trails would adhere to city codes, including the Heritage Tree Ordinance, and all potential trials would include a “no build option” that would be exercised in the event that it faced high costs, environmental hurdles or overwhelming neighborhood opposition.

Barrera said that they would first be completing a trail criteria manual, which she estimated would take about a year to complete.

Currently, the city has 30 miles of trails that would qualify as urban trails. She pointed to the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, which can see as many as 5,000 users a day. If approved, the plan would add 140 miles of trails, at approximately $2 million per mile. Of those trails, the city considers about 50 miles as high priority.

Zaragoza said that she had gone to the Walnut Creek Trail on a Tuesday afternoon with her children, and did not see anyone for 45 minutes.

“The experience was so different from anything we’ve had . . . it wasn’t enjoyable. My kids kept saying, ‘Why are we on the road’?” said Zaragoza, who wondered aloud about whether the trails were attracting cyclists to the detriment of other, more traditional, trail users.

“I totally believe that you are gaining commuters with that trail – you can tell just by looking at it. But I wonder if we are losing other users,” said Zaragoza.

Barrera, who happens to live on the trail, said that she had seen a huge increase in cyclists, calling the transformation “amazing.” She added that she did not believe that the Parks Department would stop building nature trails within parks for solely recreational purposes.

In the urban trails discussion, Chimenti singled out a trail in her neighborhood that she said “not one person in her neighborhood would support,” because it would replace a “very beloved, decomposed granite, nice nature trail that winds through the park that everyone in the park uses. You are showing it paved over.”

Barrera explained if they opted to build the trail, they would speak to the neighborhood and go through the process she had detailed earlier, adding that conversation could take place “50 years from now.”

“But, still, you’ve got it on a plan. It’s on a plan. How did you come up with a plan, when you’ve got things like that? You would have everyone in my neighborhood out picketing if you tried to do something like that,” asked Chimenti.

The trail alignments, explained Barrera, came from existing plans or public input.

Shoal Creek Conservancy’s Ted Siff spoke in support of the Urban Trails Master Plan, noting that people in the city have been working on creating a comprehensive network of city trails since at least 1993. He reminded commissioners that it was “a plan,” and had yet to be funded or set in stone. Siff said that, in his opinion, trails would not be funded without neighborhood advocacy, let alone built.

“Ours is not today, I would suggest, to question whether or not we have $300 million to implement this plan that would take decades… but to recommend, I hope, a plan. Because until you have a plan, you can’t figure out whether a part is implementable,” said Siff.

Austin Heritage Tree Foundation’s Zoila Vega spoke against the urban trail plan, and worried about the negative environmental impact of paved trails in sensitive areas.

Though he was not able to vote on the issue, ex-officio commissioner Jeff Jack also said he had a “real problem” with a trail that ran along the proposed route for the State Highway 45 Southwest, saying it was “bad PR” to put a trail along a route on which Council members say they do not want a road.

“When I first heard of this, I couldn’t understand why anyone would not support it,” said Zaragoza. “It took walking on one to see the scale, and see the difference between the concrete and the trees around it and what a different feel that has. It’s very clear that this is for the goal of connectivity, and in my mind I just keep thinking there has got to be a better way… that we can get that connectivity without having to use what people normally use to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of life.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Bicycle Master Plan: The city plan to improve bike lanes and transport across the city and increase trails.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Shoal Creek Conservancy: A nonprofit to restore and protect Shoal Creek.

Urban Trails Master Plan: The plan for walking and biking trails in the Austin area.

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