AUSTIN -- Mary Jo Hernandez, and her Heritage Hills neighbors, feel safe walking on their streets, and they want to keep it that way. The North Austin residents feel that peace and quiet is in jeopardy after learning the city plans spend a million dollars on a pedestrian bridge that it will connect them to the Windsor Hills neighborhood across North Walnut Creek.
The bridge is part of the city’s master bike plan approved in the late 1990s.
"We think it's a great idea, we just don't think that connecting a high-crime area to a low crime area is the way to do it," Hernandez said.
Two and a half years ago, her neighbors voiced similar concerns to Austin City Council. At the time, City Council delayed building the bridge.
"We need to see serious improvements and have a discussion at the council level before proceeding with that bridge, in particular because of the crime issues," Councilwoman Laura Morrison said in the June 2009 public hearing.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell, then a councilmember, seemed to express similar concerns in the same hearing.
According to city records reviewed by the Defenders, city staff and the planning commission then recommended the bridge only be built "if crime rates [have] been significantly reduced" in Windsor hills.
Last month, Austin City Council approved the bridge.
"There has been a reduction in the crime in the streets that go to the bridge," said Austin Public Works Deputy Director Keri Juarez.
However, not in the entire Windsor Hills neighborhood. Records show crime close to the proposed bridge in the Windor Hills decreased 12 percent since 2009, but the entire neighborhood saw an increase of about one percent.
To put it in perspective, Austin Police Department responded to ten crimes in Heritage Hills during the month of November. None of them were violent. During the same time period in Windor Hills, there were 53 crimes reported. Ten of those were assaults involving weapons, suffocation and robberies.
“I understand the neighbors’ concerns. We really feel that capital improvements like this are an amenity to the area and opens it up to more active uses," Juarez said.
Juarez said the driving force behind the bridge is access to a nearby school. Once built, it will allow hundreds of children to cross the creek safely and to get to Hart Elementary School. In some cases, children will walk about two miles to get to school.
"We plan to have a walking school bus, which means we will have a crossing guard at the bridge to walk with kids back and forth," Juarez said.
Austin ISD plans to take seven school buses off the streets in Windsor Hills once the bridge is complete.
Parents like Dawn Harris said she wouldn’t allow her seven-year-old daughter to walk to school by herself, even with a crossing guard.
"It doesn't matter. I wouldn't want my child to walk by herself," Harris said.
Mary Scales, who picks up her younger sister at the bus stop, doesn’t think it’s a good idea either, “because if they take seven buses away, there would be one bus and we don't know if one bus is going to be here," Scales said.
Hernandez suspects she knows why the city still wants to move forward. "Because, the city has $200,000 that they've spent and would have to pay back."
“That is true. We would have to reimburse that money, that grant money that we've spent on design," Juarez said.
If Austin City Council had removed the bridge from the master bike plan in 2009, the city would have only returned about $120,000 on design plans. That cost has more than doubled since then. The city expects the total cost of the bridge to run about $1.25 million.
Emails and phone calls to City Council members and the mayor’s office about the bridge were not returned.
Construction could start as early as April.