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UTC calls on Council to fund east side urban trails

Monday, March 12, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Urban Transportation Commission on Wednesday night called on City Council to put potentially millions of dollars’ worth of of east side urban trail projects on the November ballot.

The four projects would fill in gaps in the existing and proposed bicycle network and connect neighborhoods to parks, trails and other destinations that are currently blocked off. Controversially, one segment would bisect Morris Williams Golf Course, a notion that has raised concerns about protecting trail users from flying balls.

The UTC originally endorsed the idea last July after a presentation from East MLK Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team Chair Pinaki Ghosh. The recommendation the commission pushed out then merely encouraged Council to “expedite,” “explore,” and “increase the priority” of the plan’s components.

The draft language of Wednesday night’s recommendation included a price tag of $5.5 million, but the commissioners struck that before approval after concerns were raised about the price tag’s accuracy.

“It provides lots of opportunities for alternative transportation which should always be, in my mind, one of our goals. To me, it really just has a problem with these dollar amounts, but we could let Council and staff resolve that,” Commissioner Mario Champion said before the vote.

Of the four projects, one would provide a connection to Springdale Park for residents on the east side of that facility. Another, known as the La Loma Trail, would cross rail tracks owned by the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and give residents north of Govalle Park access to the Walnut Creek Trail. A third proposed trail would run across Little Walnut Creek District Park near East 51st Street and U.S. Highway 183. The fourth and possibly most contentious of Ghosh’s proposals would link Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Springdale Road with Manor Road through the heart of Morris Williams Golf Course.

Ghosh told the commissioners that he has overwhelming support from residents in the area along with 800 signatures on a petition.

He said the golf course trail, in particular, is something he takes personally. He explained that 18-hole course stands between the Mueller development and its shops and stores to the north and the older east side neighborhoods to the south. Furthermore, the course is accessible via the north side, while a fence lines the south side along MLK and Springdale.

“We all talk about in this city about Donald Trump’s fence. What about this fence?” Ghosh asked. “It is personal to me because this is a deep inequity. You cannot put a fence around a public land and say that you cannot pass through it. That is unacceptable.”

Ghosh showed a pair of images depicting the contrasting the two sides – one with a fence and the other without – to drive his point home.

“When you look at it, if you had found it in South Africa where the blacks live on one side and the whites live on the other side … that’s apartheid. I don’t live in an apartheid city. Or at least I hope so,” he said.

Kevin Gomillion, the manager of the city’s Golf Division, explained to the commission that the Parks and Recreation Department has many sites that require fences in order to regulate access to fee-based activities, including pools, tennis courts and other golf courses.

However, he conceded, “There’s no question that we need to update a fence that was installed back in the 1960s when it was still restricted access for the airport.”

While the idea of a cut-through trail raises questions about injuries and liabilities, Gomillion said the Parks and Recreation Department is amenable to a pair of trails that would route around the course’s outer edge.

UTC Chair D’Ann Johnson asked Gomillion about Hancock Golf Course, a nine-hole course in Central Austin with no fencing and an outer-ring trail.

“How many people have been hit by golf balls in Hancock?” she inquired.

“Oh, I could not even – lots. Cars. People,” Gomillion replied, adding that he’d have to check with the city’s legal department to find out the exact number.

In the end, the UTC voted unanimously to urge Council to fund Ghosh’s proposals.

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