Politics

Houston bike advocates take issue with Mealer campaign ad, says it minimizes importance of cycling infrastructure

A recent campaign ad for Alexandra del Moral Mealer, the Republican trying to unseat Democrat Lina Hidalgo as Harris County Judge, uses the idea of supporting cycling infrastructure as a means of criticizing her opponent.

White Oak Bayou Trail Cyclists
Gail Delaughter/Houston Public Media
Cyclists ride along the White Oak Bayou Greenway in 2019.

Crime and how to combat it has become a key issue leading up to the November election in Harris County.

A campaign advertisement in a prominent local race suggests you can’t be tough on crime if you want to make it easier for Houston-area residents to ride their bikes around the region, which has caught the ire of local cyclists.

A 30-second ad released last week by the campaign of Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Lina Hidalgo for Harris County Judge, criticizes Hidalgo's policies for combatting crime as well as her record on public safety issues. Included in the ad is the claim that Hidalgo "pretends funding bike trails and social workers is the same as law enforcement."

BikeHouston executive director Joe Cutrufo, whose local cycling advocacy group has about 12,000 members, said the messaging in the campaign ad minimizes the importance of multimodal means of transportation and suggests such infrastructure is unwanted by the general public, even though that infrastructure has expanded in recent years. Bike ownership in the region also has increased, according to the annual Kinder Houston Area Survey, which found the number of Houstonians who own bikes increased from 37.5 percent of the population in 2015 to 41.7 percent in 2020.

"It's surprising, given what we know about Houstonians' preferences, that a candidate for public office would downplay the importance of transportation options," Cutrufo said. "Bike trails are not a Democratic or Republican issue."

Cutrufo said BikeHouston works with Democrats and Republicans alike and is not supporting either Hidalgo or Mealer in the race for county judge. The nonprofit organization is prohibited from campaigning in elections, because doing so would put it at risk of losing its federal tax exemption with the IRS.

Mealer, in an emailed statement from her campaign, said she personally uses bike trails in the Houston area and supports the need for them. The point she wanted to make in the campaign ad, she said, is that "Hidalgo used money that should have gone to law enforcement and instead used it to fund new trails, all the while calling it spending on ‘public safety.' "

"I am 100% for bike trails – both me, my husband and our kids are avid users of the bike trails and are extremely grateful to the great families in Harris County that have privately funded our exceptional trail systems along the bayous," Mealer said.

Hidalgo's campaign, in an emailed statement, defended the county's support for law enforcement since she was elected in 2018. She also said the county's proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 "includes $1.4 billion for every county law enforcement agency," which includes the Harris County Sheriff's Office as well as eight constable precincts.

"Under Judge Hidalgo's leadership, law enforcement funding has increased by 23 percent," her campaign said.

The region's expanding trail network and other cycling infrastructure has not been directly under the purview of Hidalgo, who as the county judge makes up a five-member county commissioners court along with four elected commissioners. Cutrufo said BikeHouston deals more closely with the individual county commissioners, such as Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat who has been an outspoken cycling advocate while committing resources toward multimodal infrastructure, including through the Bayou Greenways initiative.

Bayou Greenways is a public-private partnership led by the Houston Parks Board, which was created by the city government, that has expanded the trail network during the last decade. The city also has committed to adding 1,800 miles of protected bike lanes through the Houston Bike Plan, adopted in 2017, and has constructed about 400 of those miles to date.

David Fields, the city's chief transportation planner, has said Houston is in the midst of a transportation paradigm shift under Mayor Sylvester Turner in which it is looking at every transportation project through a multimodal lens. The idea is to improve public safety by decreasing the number of traffic-related injuries and deaths while also providing more transportation options to more residents and combating pollution and climate change as well.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, 92 people died across the state last year in crashes involving cyclists.

"Our transportation system has been so unbalanced toward cars that we need elected officials at all levels of government to fix that imbalance so that Houstonians have real transportation choices," Cutrufo said.

Funding for more multimodal infrastructure is on the ballot for the Nov. 8 midterm election, and not just through individual candidates such as Hidalgo and Mealer. Harris County voters will decide on a $1.2 billion bond package related to public safety, transportation and drainage infrastructure and the county's parks and trails.

Proposition A asks for up to $100 million for investments supporting public safety facilities and technology, including for law enforcement and the county court system. Proposition B asks voters for up to $900 million for investments in road rehabilitation and added capacity, along with neighborhood drainage improvements and access to walking, biking and mass transit facilities. Proposition C would provide up to $200 million for new construction and/or maintenance of parks and trails, including for inclusive parks for people with disabilities.

"Bikes are on the ballot in Harris County this November," said Cutrufo, adding that BikeHouston supports Props B and C.

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