As Austin City Council weighs options for the next mobility bond election, bicycle and pedestrian advocates are urging the city to include funding in the next bond for carrying out the bicycle and sidewalk master plans.
Advocacy group Bike Austin launched a petition Jan. 22 calling for the city to completely fund its Bicycle Master Plan and build most critical missing sidewalk segments and urban trails. The group wants to have 20,000 signatures by May for the informal petition, said Miller Nuttle, campaigns director for Bike Austin.
“I think our bike plan is one of the most ambitious I’ve ever seen: [about]220 miles of protected bike lanes, 50 miles of urban trails,” Nuttle said. “We’ll leapfrog Portland and other places.”[polldaddy poll=9321554]
But implementing the sidewalk and bicycle master plans comes down to funding. The Bicycle Master Plan includes a $150 million citywide bicycle network, and the city is missing 2,387 miles, or $1.46 billion worth, of sidewalks. John Eastman acknowledges it may sound insignificant that the city is only able to build between 10 and 15 miles of sidewalks each year.
“But we’re blowing away most cities,” said Eastman, a project manager in the Sidewalk and Special Projects Division of the Public Works Department. “We have one of the most aggressive sidewalk plans in the country.”
A mobility bond could be one solution, but City Council will seek public input this spring on transportation priorities and funding options. Council could decide by May or June to determine next steps for a mobility bond possibly in 2016 or 2018.
“It would be my hope that we could actually move forward on some mobility [initiatives]this year, and I’d like us to be able to do that,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “I am impatient, and I think that our city is impatient and wants things to happen.”
The city of Austin overhauled its Bicycle Master Plan in 2014 after a shift in bicycle facilities planning in the U.S., said Nathan Wilkes, an active transportation designer for the Austin Transportation Department. The city’s active transportation program works to integrate biking, walking and transit in the transportation system.
“In the traditional approach, painted bicycle lanes on busy streets was good enough, but there’s a lot of data that showed the response to protected bicycle lanes and other all-ages infrastructure was about four times the magnitude,” he said.
So the city developed in the Bicycle Master Plan what it calls the All Ages and Abilities Network, a $150 million system of on-street bicycle facilities and off-street urban trails that anyone of any age could safely use.
At current funding levels, Wilkes said it would take decades to fully realize the bike network. Bond funding and partnerships with other transportation agencies are potential funding options, and if fully funded, the network could be implemented in five to 10 years, he said.
“We’re constantly chipping away at the goal of building the All Ages and Abilities Network, but that’s all with existing operations,” he said.
Other components of the Bicycle Master Plan center around education and encouragement, said Laura Dierenfield, the active transportation program manager. In late 2015 the city launched a pilot program in North Austin called Smart Trips, which provides resources and information to residents on carpooling, transit, walking and biking.
Money from the city, Capital Metro and the Quarter Cent Fund will allow the city to officially roll out the program in mid-2016. The Quarter Cent Fund is leftover Capital Metro money from the failed 2000 light-rail proposition and is dedicated to transportation projects.
“To bring people to the All Ages and Abilities Network, the idea is to really build on our education and encouragement programs that help teach people how to be safe on a bike,” she said.
Annually the city spends $9 million to $10 million on sidewalk construction and maintenance, but Eastman said current recommendations are spending between $40 million and $50 million per year on new construction and $15 million a year on maintenance
Eastman said PWD staffers will brief the the City Council Mobility Committee on March 2 on the updated master plan. Staffers will incorporate feedback from the council members and then create a draft for public review and adoption by City Council in late spring or early summer.
The current plan, last updated in 2009, does not include sidewalks that are built as part of the Great Streets program or through private development. Eastman said the city sometimes defers sidewalk projects along high-priority corridors where redevelopment is occurring.
“[The developers are] going to be required to put in sidewalks,” he said. “In addition to that they’ll have to dedicate right of way to build nicer, wider sidewalks we can’t build within the existing right of way.”
To determine sidewalk priority in the master plan, the city used criteria, such as its proximity to public transit and income of nearby residents, Eastman said.
“Depending on your socio-economic status, either by choice, economic necessity or physical necessity, you may be reliant on the sidewalk transit system, and the plan really prioritizes that,” he said.
Reasons for missing sidewalks in high-priority areas, such as along Jollyville Road, are because the project would require other infrastructure to be built first. Eastman said Jollyville lacks a drainage system and the presence of heritage trees would significantly increase the project cost. In those cases the city pursues funding as a named bond project.
Eastman said equally as important as building new sidewalks is maintaining the existing network. About 80 percent of existing sidewalks are deemed functionally deficient, he said. The city should replace 32 miles of sidewalks each year, but currently maintenance is budgeted at $250,000 annually, he said.
“We’re suggesting that the funding really needs to be in the $15 million-a-year range to address existing infrastructure and an additional level of funding to fill in the gaps that are needed,” he said.
As for other sidewalk funding options, Eastman said it would be up to council and working with the public to decide if any projects would be added to a future mobility bond. Council could also discuss policy options, such as adding fees to programs, that could contribute funding to sidewalk construction.
“Funding has got to come from somewhere,” he said. “When you’re asking voters for money, they want to know that you’ve shaken every possible tree.”
Bike Austin board President Erick Benz said the group’s mission is to realize the vision of a safe, walkable and bikeable city. He said having more bike facilities gives people the option to choose which mode they want when traveling throughout the city for work, school or shopping trips.
“We’re excluding a lot of people right now from the opportunity to bike and walk because we’re only considering cars in the improvements going in,” Benz said. “That’s something the city has said shouldn’t be the way that it’s done.”
Citywide 2 percent of the population use biking as their mode share, meaning they commute by bike at least three times per week, according to the city’s Bicycle Master Plan. Nuttle said that is double most other American cities, and the percentage is higher, at 5.5 percent, in the downtown core where more facilities have been built.
To increase the number of people using bikes as their mode share, he said adding protected bike lanes would result in the greatest benefit. In a city of Austin survey, 55 percent of residents who responded would bike using protected bike lanes.
“Bicycling and walking are an integral part of Austin and our social fabric and are widely popular,” Nuttle said. “You may not see [bicyclists]in your neighborhood if you live out of the urban core, but the survey the city did suggests half of your neighbors want to be riding their bikes but they feel like they want a safe place to do it.”
Benz, who lives in Canyon Creek off RM 620, said areas of Northwest Austin would benefit from more bicycle facilities. The master plan also recommends shared-use paths on state-owned roads RM 2222 and RM 620.
“One thing people say is that Northwest Austin doesn’t need bike facilities, but I can tell you that some simple improvements like the bike lanes on Anderson Mill [Road] have enabled me to replace 80 percent of my car trips with a bike ride,” he said. “I think these [facilities]can be very transformational and provide people with that opportunity that they just don’t feel they have right now with the current infrastructure.”
Additional reporting by Kelli Weldon