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Travis County considers ambitious bicycle and pedestrian proposals

Wednesday, May 4, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has flung itself into the ongoing conversation about funding bicycle infrastructure in Central Texas.

On Tuesday, the court-appointed Bicycle Safety Task Force presented a long list of detailed proposals to enhance multimodal alternatives in unincorporated parts of the county.

That list included a $3.3 million slate of specific projects to be funded with bond money approved by voters in 2011. Among the projects were a pedestrian hybrid beacon near Steiner Ranch Elementary School, a 4-foot bike lane on Howard Lane and a new slurry seal on Southwest Parkway.

The task force also identified a longer list of potential projects that could be candidates for future bond funding, including a $6 million, 2.9-mile stretch of bike trail that might end up connecting Austin to Manor.

That project would be part of a much more ambitious network also proposed by the task force. Dubbed the “Freewheel and Spoke Bike Network,” it would consist of at least eight separate shared-use paths spindling outward from Austin to neighboring communities. According to the task force’s report, such a network could help people who use it avoid the “donut of death.”

“Currently, there is a ring around Austin where getting from inside the City to the surrounding communities, parks, and to lower volume roads in unincorporated Travis County is now blocked to most people who want to bike there,” the report says.

Task force member Erick Benz also told the court on Tuesday that the group wants to see changes in the subdivision design standards to include mandates for more pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

“Some progressive builders are putting those things in, but we’d like to see things put in place so that becomes the expectation,” Benz explained. “Because otherwise, when we come to retrofit, we end up with what we see many places: People have to walk their kids to school in the street, or they’re forced into their cars.”

Other task force recommendations included a full-time bicycle and pedestrian planning position, the development of a Vision Zero policy to eliminate traffic-related deaths in Travis County and a revision of the county’s traffic safety program that would take into account cyclists when determining speed limits on any given road.

Of all the proposals, county staff recommended that the court approve only the list of bond-funded projects, the list of future candidate projects for bond funding and the creation of a permanent bicycle/pedestrian advisory committee. As for the rest, staff proposed to further their financial impacts and report back later.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty indicated that he would support that recommendation. However, before he made a motion, he said that investing in bicycle infrastructure is one controversial “needle-mover” among several in Travis County.

“If you bring up abortion, the needle pops. If you bring up illegal immigration, the needle pops. If you bring up right to carry, the needle pops,” Daugherty explained. “And we have somehow got to find a way to get this community to sit down with a calm mind and really rationally talk about this.”

The court took separate votes — all three moved by Daugherty — on staff’s three recommendations. The proposal to use 2011 bond money to fund the projects identified by the task force passed on a 3-0-2 vote with Commissioners Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis abstaining. Only Davis abstained on the decision to identify funding for the second slate of proposed projects as well as the creation of the advisory committee.

As the discussion was winding down, Davis explained his reasoning. “I’m just a more-details person,” he said. “And when I vote that way, I vote because it’s not detailed enough for me to support it.”

After the votes, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt pledged to put the task force’s remaining proposals on future agendas as their particular details are worked out. She also pledged to work to ensure that all future transportation projects, on both the county and the regional level, will from the very beginning of the planning stages include options for cyclists, pedestrians and disabled residents.

“Because to not include them at the ground level is to not include them at all,” Eckhardt said.

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