AUSTIN — On a 5-2 vote Monday night, the Austin City Council decided against placing a stop sign at one of the 250 uncontrolled intersections in the city, despite overwhelming neighborhood support.
Valerie Schminke, who lives at the intersection of 27th Street and Ninth Avenue Southwest in the far southwestern corner of Austin, brought some friends with her to ask the council yet again to put stop signs at the four-way intersection where she lives. But the council, after some deliberation and disagreement, voted against the request.
“As the city council, we’re constantly balancing the needs of the individual with the city overall,” said Council Member Laura Helle.
That balancing act comes with a process, and the process should not be derailed every time someone who’s organized and eloquent, like Schminke, Helle said, comes along, because not every neighborhood has someone like her with the time and energy to gather signatures and make a compelling case.
“I’m going to vote in favor of the process,” Helle said. “It’s more equitable to the whole community.”
Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm said he represents 24,000 people in the city, and he was concerned that putting up a stop sign in one of the more well-off neighborhoods would make it seem like the city council is only reacting to requests from its rich citizens, not the poor residents.
Schminke first came to City Hall asking for four stop signs on May 20, but was turned down by the city. She came back June 2, speaking during the public comment period of the city council meeting, and was granted a turn to plead her case in front of the city council workshop that follows each city council regular meeting.
This time, Schminke brought reinforcements: four neighbors supporting her cause and the signatures of 62 people who live within a mile of the intersection.
In fact, at the June 3 city council meeting, Helle said Schminke should bring some reinforcements in order to better make her case. But after Schminke made her presentation, Helle still opted to follow the city’s guidelines, saying many neighborhoods did not have an advocate like Schminke, and that was unfair for people who might want a stop sign on an uncontrolled intersection in that neighborhood.
Echoing Helle’s arguments, Stiehm said many neighborhoods have a high immigrant population, and those individuals do not generally have the desire or skill set to advocate for themselves at City Hall, so agreeing to a stop sign in Schminke’s neighborhood would be unfair to those immigrants.
City Engineer Steven Lang noted, in a memorandum to the city council, that the city has about 750 intersections and 250 of them have no controlling signage or lights. In the memorandum, Lang noted three other intersections with worse sight lines than the one that serves as the primary gateway to the 120-plus homes in Schminke’s neighborhood.
City Council Member Jason Baskin, who was one of two votes in favor of a two-way stop sign for north and south bound traffic at the intersection, said he wanted to know why the city had so many intersections where traffic is not controlled. “What’s the downside?” he asked. “Why don’t we have more stop signs?”
Stiehm replied that the criteria for installing stop signs at intersections needs to be followed consistently.
Lang argued in his memo that in addition to the comparison to the other intersections and the lack of previous crashes recorded at the intersection, it would not be a candidate to add stop signs.
But Schminke and her neighbors agreed that the guidelines do not seem to show the true nature of the intersection in question.
Teresa Kubas, who lives diagonally across the intersection from Schminke, said 16 years ago there were only a handful of houses in the subdivision, so traffic data has changed over time in the neighborhood.
Schminke said between the June 3 meeting and Monday night, she knocked on 100 doors in her neighborhood, talking to 65 people, 62 of whom signed her petition asking for a stop sign. Of the other three, two were in a hurry and asked her to return, she said.
“That’s a 95 percent success rate,” she said. “And about 75 percent of the people I talked to told me how they have nearly hit another car or been hit by another car at that intersection.”
She added that on the city council’s own website, it states the goals of the council include to make a better city, grow the city, and to represent the people.
“A stop sign makes a better life for the people who live here,” Schminke said. “If you vote no, you’re not representing the constituents of Austin.”