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Eckhardt issues public challenge on transit, affordability, justice reform

Tuesday, January 12, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt on Monday challenged the public to get involved and help achieve a broad set of policy goals in 2016.

In her first press conference of the year, Eckhardt stood before a line of cameras and reporters and laid out a tripartite agenda that focused on transit, economic prosperity and a re-examination of the civil and criminal justice systems.

“2016 will be a great year to continue sharing our collective blessings with all Travis County residents,” Eckhardt said before enumerating her general prescription for how to do that.

While “transportation” is usually found at the top of most local and regional policymakers’ lists of pressing needs, Eckhardt adjusted the script in a striking way that took the focus off of the traditional model of road-building.

“First, our families and our planet need transit,” Eckhardt declared. “Let us move through our sensitive environment and get home in time for dinner on a bus, a train, a bike or on foot.”

She added, “We cannot remain stuck in our cars by ourselves on endless ribbons of asphalt.”

To achieve this bold transformation, Eckhardt urged residents to lean on the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to include park-and-ride options and rapid bus service in all future toll road projects. She also indicated that she would continue to pressure the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to focus on more multimodal alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles.

Eckhardt also spotlighted the needs of the less fortunate communities in the county. “Our poorest residents need green spaces, safe and affordable housing and industries committed to employing the community for generations to come,” she said. She singled out low-opportunity areas in Precinct 4, which covers southeast Travis County, for reinvestment, floodplain reclamation and transportation infrastructure.

Finally, citing “all the disharmony and violence in the world,” Eckhardt turned to the county’s courts, which she said need to be re-examined so that the county can “reimagine the way we deliver civil and criminal justice.”

That lofty goal can be achieved, she said, by rooting out inefficiencies in the court and jail programs, by building new court spaces and by working with community stakeholders to improve physical and mental health services.

This final prong could be understood as an agile response to the inconvenient loss of last year’s $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond proposition. That proposed facility, which had been in the works for years, was slated to add much-needed capacity to the court system. Now that it has been pushed into the horizon indefinitely, the county will have to get creative in order to continue providing service to a quickly growing population.

“We’re going back to the drawing board,” Eckhardt said. “We will be going back through what we already know and also looking at options that are brand new to us, as well as examining how our courts are functioning right now how they are. So walk with us on this.”

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