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City lacks funding for pedestrian hybrid beacons

Wednesday, March 11, 2015 by Sunny Sone

Transportation Department staff revealed that the city is out of funding for pedestrian hybrid beacons, leaving a backlog of more than 100 requests for beacons around the city. During the regular meeting of the Pedestrian Advisory Council, staff presented the process and criteria for installing beacons and noted halfway through the discussion that the program was out of money.

Pedestrian hybrid beacons are midblock crosswalks activated by pedestrians crossing busy streets. Traffic is stopped on both sides of the street by a red light and then continues after the road is clear. A study by the Federal Highway Administration found that beacons reduced pedestrian accidents by 69 percent and total crashes by 29 percent.

Advisory Council member Mike Sledge discussed the beacon request backlog with transportation staff. In addition to coordinating beacon requests with the Sidewalk Master Plan, Sledge urged the Transportation Department to find new sources of funding for beacons.

“This program is a victim of its success,” Sledge said. “We all agree they’re needed. We all agree that they’re very effective.”

There are currently 38 beacons in operation, with two out of service near the future UT Medical School. The last beacon is under construction at Oltorf and South Lamar; it was the final location to receive funding.

The beacons cost $60,000 per installation and require an engineering study of the potential crossing area. Covering the backlog would cost the city $6.3 million.

Funding for the beacons comes from transportation bonds. Because the 2014 bond did not pass, no funding was approved for transportation projects, including the beacons. A total of 24 beacons — including the final beacon under construction — have been installed in the past five years for approximately $1.2 million total, with 18 beacons constructed for approximately $800,000 using the 2010 bonds, and six for $400,000 using the 2012 bonds.

Renee Orr of the Transportation Department gave the presentation on the beacons. She identified several alternative sources of funding, including grant funds, private funding and being included in the city’s budgeting process.

“While funding is currently limited, we are always working to identify additional funding opportunities to help meet the need of installing more PHBs,” Orr wrote in an email to the Austin Monitor.

Other, less expensive pedestrian crossing devices still have available funding. Rectangular rapid flashing beacons emit a flashing LED light after activation by a pedestrian. They are less effective than pedestrian beacons, but cost only between $10,000 and $15,000 to install.

The funding announcement disrupted a staff discussion seeking feedback on the screening process for locations receiving beacons. The current process involves citizens or entities submitting 311 requests, which are then scrutinized using a weighted criteria worksheet. Criteria include available median space, pedestrian generators such as businesses across busy streets from one another, incorporation into neighborhood or small-area plans, and whether the potential crossing is in an Environmental Justice area.

Austin ReyesReyes Rodriguez took issue with the weight of Environmental Justice which takes into account the fair and equal treatment of people regardless of race, area of origin or income with respect to development and enforcement of environmental laws. Environmental Justice is weighted once, while pedestrian generators and distance to the nearest crossing are weighted twice.

Orr said the beacons are generally needed on streets where a signal is unnecessary, but a crosswalk alone would be ineffective. Midblock crosswalks create safety hazards — often drivers do not notice a crosswalk located between intersections. Sledge urged the need to find alternative funding to help lessen these dangers.

“We have people trying to cross streets unsafely,” Sledge said. “But we have a $60,000 solution to make it more safe.”

This story has been corrected since publication.

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