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Austin Transportation makes strides for transparent project data

Monday, January 13, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The Pedestrian Advisory Council is asking the city for more public updates on mobility projects as the Austin Transportation Department continues developing its online interactive database.

Last Monday evening, the advisory board unanimously passed a recommendation drafted by chair Adam Greenfield calling for a more concentrated effort at updating the public via social media posts, email or other avenues as progress is made on pedestrian infrastructure projects. The recommendation acknowledged the city’s recent progress in public engagement but asked that those efforts continue in a more robust fashion.

“I would say that the city does it sometimes and sporadically, but we’re talking about a more systematic approach,” Greenfield said.

In September, the Transportation Department is rolling out the first iteration of its Mobility Project Database, an interactive platform that may ultimately be a one-stop-shop to view all ongoing mobility-related projects citywide. However, John Clary of Transportation’s Data & Technology Services division cautioned that the effort will be greatly simplified at first, calling the tool “the smallest thing that we can get working and get out the door before we make it better.”

Eventually, Amenity Applewhite with Data & Technology Services said the tool will give city staffers and community members the desired real-time visibility for proposed, planned, active and completed mobility projects. In the meantime, she said there is still a lot of work to be done finding ways to consolidate all of the data coming from multiple city divisions spread across many buildings and various departments, each of which tracks data in its own way. As of now, she said, reporting that data is both time-consuming and unreliable.

The reason the tool is only now taking form is that the Data & Technology Services team has been spending most of its time trying to make sure city employees and contract workers have the tools needed to submit data as work is completed, Clary said.

Once the city refines its data submission process, the team anticipates getting other mobility agencies like the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation to adopt the reporting protocol as well. For some of the agencies, that will likely require a sales pitch of some sort, Clary said.

The Transportation Department also recently launched its online 2020 Mobility Annual Plan. This plan covers all work made possible from 2016 mobility bond dollars, including a $137 million local mobility program for things like safe routes to schools, improving substandard streets, bikeways, sidewalks, urban trails, and Vision Zero intersections.

Laura Dierenfield of the Transportation Department’s Active Transportation and Street Design division said the plan lays out the 2016 bond projects that will be initiated over the coming year and offers the public an opportunity to give feedback.

Dierenfield said the city welcomes feedback on how the program functions as a whole in terms of project selection, prioritization and work strategy as well as specific comments on individual projects. While the feedback may not be entirely incorporated, she said comments will be reflected in the work as much as possible and will also inform future projects.

Even if the department won’t be able to respond to the comments, she said that doesn’t mean they aren’t having an impact. In terms of helping the department understand how to create effective local solutions, she said, “people’s lived experience really is unmatched.”

Residents can read the plan, view the map and submit comments through Feb. 2 at the plan’s website. Dierenfield reminded the advisory council Monday that the projects listed make up only a portion of all of the capital work being done through a variety of funding sources across the city. For sidewalks alone, she estimated the plan accounts for between 50 and 60 percent of all ongoing improvements.

The plan will be updated with an appendix in March to review recent projects and will be updated again this year in preparation for mobility work in the following year.

Photo courtesy of the Austin Transportation Department.

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