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Audit pinpoints Transportation Department trouble

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Austin’s top local transportation official is taking in stride a newly released report from the city auditor that finds plenty of room for improvement on city transportation initiatives.

Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar said he wasn’t surprised by any of the four key findings revealed in the Transportation Effectiveness Audit, which was presented to the City Council Audit and Finance Committee at City Hall on Monday morning. He also rejected outright any fear that the less-than-flattering report might hurt Austin’s standing in its bid to win the federal Smart City Challenge grant.

“I think this was a pretty important opportunity to maybe point out what we already knew and we need to continuously improve,” Spillar said.

The audit team identifies shortcomings in communication between city agencies and external partners, such as the Texas Department of Transportation and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Characterizing the dynamic as a “‘silo’ approach,” the report points out that CTRMA will soon add a third traffic management center in addition to two others already separately operated by the Austin Transportation Department and TxDOT.

After the meeting, Spillar told a gaggle of media that there are already plans in the works to address that issue. “We’re talking with our regional partners about moving to a one-system management concept,” he explained. “Imagine the highways, the transit system, the arterials are all coordinated in terms of making decisions about if a ramp needs to be closed in the future because of an incident, how we route people around that, how we respond to incidents.”

The report also raps the city’s knuckles for having what it describes as a largely reactive approach to transportation problems. It notes that the department’s “work is largely driven by requests received, mostly through the City’s 311 system.”

The report attributes that problem to funding, staffing, technological and planning issues. The auditors also report that parties they talked to pointed to the failed 2014 transportation bond – which included huge sums for a light rail proposal – as a distraction. “While some stakeholders noted that the bond issue was a missed opportunity, others noted that the focus on rail delayed other priority areas,” the report states.

It goes on to criticize city agencies for not fully using crash data to implement actionable safety programs. It points out that traffic deaths on Austin roads have been trending upward, including a record number of fatal crashes in 2015.

Spillar in part blamed a resurgent economy for higher fatality rates across the country. As people are less and less financially pinched, they travel more and thus expose themselves to the inherent dangers of the road, he reasoned. However, he added that his department is focusing on efforts to improve safety conditions at five intersections across town that are known to be high risk for drivers.

“We’re also talking with the Austin Police Department about expanding the traffic enforcement capabilities,” Spillar said. “When people are stopped for routine traffic violations, it gives officers the chance to check their license, their insurance, and to make sure their car is safe to be on the roadway as well.”

The audit also notes that 64 percent of all fatal crashes in 2015 involved alcohol- or drug-related impairment, a condition that stakeholders interviewed for the report attributed to lack of both safer alternatives and stronger penalties for violators. A line in the report that suggests drivers and pedestrians must ultimately be held responsible for their own actions caught Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo’s attention during the committee meeting.

“I don’t want that piece to get lost in all of our conversations about the need to provide for alternative means and parking meters that extend into the next day and other proposals,” said Tovo. “I think that we always need to be reminding people that they need to make better choices.”

The fourth and final finding in the report simply notes that the city currently has multiple ongoing transportation initiatives aimed at improving mobility. Tovo briefly acknowledged that finding before nudging the committee to vote to formally accept the report. That vote, moved by Council Member Leslie Pool and seconded by Council Member Pio Renteria, was unanimous.

Photo by Robert Jack 啸风 Will made available through a Creative Commons license.

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