Our opinion: Complete Streets needs clarity

Published 5:28 pm Friday, February 23, 2024

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If Tuesday night’s City Council meeting demonstrated anything, it’s that people will show up to a meeting when they are invested enough in a topic.

And in this instance, it’s sidewalks.

While approving road projects for the upcoming year, the Council, as part of a street project involving Ninth and 12th Streets SW, voted 5-2 to eliminate the addition of sidewalks as part of the project.

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As it stands now, there are no sidewalks on Ninth Street and it’s been a mark of contention with homeowners who wished to keep their street free of sidewalks. Numbering among the reasons why were a fear of affecting the nature of the street by taking down trees as well as adding cost to homeowners because of extra landscaping and yard work many of the homes may need.

The sidewalks were added to the project in part guided by the City’s Complete Streets Policy which has guided project planning by adding sidewalks in areas where road work is due.

There are merits to both sides of the argument. Having a Complete Streets Policy helps secure grants for projects from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, but at the same time it’s understandable that people may not want to lose trees and they certainly don’t want to be burdened with excess costs.

At the subject’s heart is the policy itself — it needs work if it is going to continue to be used by the city for projects in the future, and the question’s first bid for attention should be the intent of the policy.

Complete Streets has support on the council, and it can be an important tool regarding how projects are approached in the future, but it’s also … if you will … incomplete and there are questions as to how much it should be relied on.

This can lead to a nebulous gray area. For example, when should sidewalks be put in, or as councilmember Geoff Baker pointed out Tuesday night, should money used for installing sidewalks be used elsewhere such as repairing existing roads?

What are the needs requiring sidewalks and as resident Charles Mills suggested, should it be an ordinance rather than a policy, which can lose foundation with each exception that is made? We’re not saying in this piece that the council was right or wrong on this issue or any others that may come up, only that the policy needs consistency in order to firm up the policy’s intent.

It would also go a long way in shoring up the fairness question that council member Laura Helle rightfully brought up during the project’s discussion. Other neighborhoods in Austin have had sidewalks or other items added that maybe they didn’t want. Why should another neighborhood be given a pass?

It’s a fair question.

We believe that Complete Streets is helpful to the process of determining how projects will lay out in the future and we believe that neighborhoods will be more likely to accept changes to their neighborhoods — even if they may not like them — if there is a consistent guideline in place and we believe that people will be better served in that role if it is an ordinance rather than a policy.

Nobody’s particularly fond of assessments, but we pay them knowing that we are not alone and they are necessary to the proper functioning of our community. There will be more projects, projects with concerns and questions.

How much easier will the process be when there are consistent guidelines?