by Bobbie Jean Sawyer
AUSTIN — The Travis County Commissioners Court voted recently, in a unanimous decision, to move forward with construction of a sidewalk on El Rey Boulevard in Granada Hills. The 3,700 foot sidewalk, which was approved as part of a Nov. 2011 bond package, and is estimated to cost $660,000, has been a source of contention among neighbors on El Rey. The county halted progress on the sidewalk last month after some residents objected to the project.
Travis County Precinct Three Commissioner Gerald Daugherty made the motion to approve the sidewalk, citing pedestrian safety concerns.
“In a perfect world I would think we need sidewalks throughout this neighborhood. The trumping thing for me is the safety factor,” Daugherty said. “I think that it’s the most prudent for us to move forward with building the sidewalk.”
Lee Turner, a Travis County project engineer, said the Transportation and Natural Resources (TNR) department supports the construction of the sidewalk, stretching from Highway 290 to Espanola, to help keep pedestrians safe from an onslaught of traffic coming off Highway 290.
“The traffic turns off of 290 and drives down to the back of the neighborhood, so it’s kind of a collector street for a sizable neighborhood back there,” Turner said.
Rick Perkins, an El Rey resident and member of the Granada Hills Homeowners Association, has been advocating for the sidewalk for over five years. Perkins said the sidewalk would ensure not only a safer neighborhood, but also a greater community interaction.
“In the evenings I walk around the neighborhood, and when I get towards the back where the park is—where it’s easier to walk because the streets are wider—there’s lots of people walking around and talking to each other and walking their dogs. It’s more of a community,” Perkins said. “But on the front portion of El Rey, because it’s so dangerous and nobody really walks up here, we don’t get that kind of interaction.”
Perkins said the Granada Hills HOA conducted a survey in early 2007, asking residents if they were in favor of improving the front portion of El Rey from Highway 290 to the park by widening the road. Of the 218 responses received, 56 percent said they were in favor of altering the road.
Perkins began working with Commissioner Daugherty during his previous term in office, and then with former Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Karen Huber. After considering the financial impact of widening the road, it was determined that a sidewalk would be a more viable and cost effective option, Perkins said.
“They did all the cost estimating and they recommended that we just go for a sidewalk and not try to widen the road because it would be too expensive,” Perkins said.
Hope Dyson, president of the Granada Hills Homeowners Association, said the sidewalk is necessary to keep school kids safe on their commute to the bus.
“The children who live on El Rey have to walk down that section of El Rey between 290 and Espanola to catch the school bus, and in order to do that, they have to leave the road surface to avoid the cars,” Dyson said. “I don’t think it’s safe. The engineers have said it’s not safe and have said that it wasn’t safe since 1984, which is almost 30 years at this point. I believe that it needs to be addressed.”
Jaime Anderson, an El Rey resident, said the sidewalk will benefit all neighborhood drivers by limiting the amount of pedestrians on the road.
“It’s a neighborhood issue and it’s not just the 45 people who will use the sidewalk,” Anderson said. “It’s also the rest of the neighborhood who uses the streets.”
Anderson said getting the sidewalk is representative of a changing atmosphere in Granada Hills.
“We’re not rural anymore,” Anderson said. “We’re really close to the city and because of that it’s a desirable neighborhood, and if we want home values to continue to increase then we need to make it desirable for the people who will be moving in in the future. I think those people are more likely going to be young families that would desire a sidewalk and a safe way to travel to the park and the pool.”
However, not all residents agree that the sidewalk is necessary.
Bill Staton, an El Rey resident who has lived in Granada Hills since 1976, said the project is a waste of tax money for the benefit of only a few residents.
“I don’t want to see them wasting $666,000 of our tax money for the very small amount of use that it will get,” Staton said.
Staton said there’s ample room for pedestrians to walk safely on the side of the road.
“The county has a 60 foot wide right of way. The road is 24 feet. That leaves 18 feet on each side for people to walk on. They choose to walk on the pavement,” Staton said. “After 40 years with no problems, is there really a problem?”
Charlotte Ready, who’s lived on El Rey for over 20 years, said the amount of pedestrians on El Rey has been exaggerated by those in favor of the sidewalk.
“We don’t see all this pedestrian traffic,” Ready said. “Yes, the street is busier during certain times of the day, but there are large sections of the day where there’s nothing.”
Staton said he and some of his neighbors were excluded from the discussion over the project.
“Had proper communications been done, we could have fought this before it got on the bond package,” Staton said. “Now you’ve got a small section of our neighborhood absolutely divided. It’s really unfortunate.”
Ready said she and other neighbors opposed to the sidewalk conducted an informal survey of all El Rey residents, going door to door to the occupied properties to gauge the reaction to the proposed project.
“When we canvassed the neighborhood, 88 percent of the people we talked to didn’t know anything about the sidewalk before it was on the bond package,” Ready said. “There were 28 who knew nothing, three of those found out after it was already in the bond package. The rest didn’t know about it until the fall of 2012. So we were not consulted and not included.”
Perkins said all Granada Hills residents had the opportunity to have their voices heard.
“Throughout the years, since 2006, there have been multiple discussions,” Perkins said. “Some people participate in the discussion and some people do not participate and they just removed themselves from participating. It’s very easy to participate in our neighborhood. All you have to do is read the newsletter, go to the meetings, maybe even become a member of the HOA.”
Ready said her goal throughout the process was to encourage the county to conduct an in-depth, objective study to determine if the sidewalk is truly needed.
“We would like to see statistically objective and significant data to prove that there is a safety issue,” Ready said. “I just hope that the neighborhood can heal and we just go forward with this. We just gave it our best shot to get accurate, objective information and statistics and not just hearsay.”
Perkins said despite the dispute among neighbors, he believes the sidewalk will be appreciated even by its strongest opponents.
“They’re going to be using the sidewalk and they’re going to be loving it,” Perkins said. “It’s really a benefit to our neighborhood.”
Turner said it will take anywhere from nine months to a year to finish the sidewalk design and go through the permit and bidding process for the project.
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