This week, the Vision Zero draft plan moved through the city council’s Mobility Committee this week. The committee voted 3 to 1 to send it to the full council for final vote. If approved, it’s up to the Vision Zero task force and various city departments to make sure the recommendations become a reality. Not everyone is confident the lead department, Austin Transportation, can handle that responsibility.
“Anyone who has watched Austin city politics for the past five to eight years understands that there’s no sense of immediacy given to anything," says Mike Levy, a member of the city’s Public Safety Commission. and the commission’s representative on the Vision Zero Task Force.
When Vision Zero started, City Manager Marc Ott told the Planning Department to lead the task force, but earlier this year, the project was shifted to Transportation, a department that was recently called out in city audit on its efficiency and effectiveness to facilitate and regulate transportation in Austin.
“We found the city’s not effectively coordinated internally among city departments or externally with our transportation partners," said Corrie Stokes of the Office of the City Auditor in the April audit.
The audit also found "rules and responsibilities weren’t clearly defined and understood," that "transportation planning and priority models were out of date" and that "the city has not fully utilized crash information to improve traffic safety.”
It’s unclear why the project was transferred to transportation. Ott’s office didn't return requests for comment on this story.
Transportation officials say they’re understaffed and the department suffers from years of under-investment. But department Director Rob Spillar says Vision Zero is safe in his hands.
“A lot of accolade needs to go to Planning for getting that started, but we have adopted and wrapped our arms around it and believe that is a way forward," Spillar said at a recent audit presentation.
Jim Dale, assistant director of ATD, says they’ll hold themselves accountable to implement those Vision Zero recommendations, "through a report card annually that we’ll do. We’ve also added in accountability by continuing the Vision Zero Task Force.”
Dale says the department has already started implementing some of the Vision Zero plan, including the ongoing safety improvement projects at five high crash locations. But it’s unclear what the exact benchmarks are for implementing some of the longer-term recommendations and who is held accountable if they aren’t.
That may be because there are a lot of unknowns and the transportation department can’t predict the future. Namely, how will many of these projects be funded, and whether the current and future councils be convinced that the proposals should be a priority.
Austin Police Department Commander Art Fortune is a Vision Zero Task Force member. He also runs APD’s Highway Enforcement Command. Fortune’s concern is many Vision Zero Task Force members have other jobs.
“I’m running a command," Fortune says. "Not that my time – it’s not invaluable to Vision Zero – but I've got to run a budget, I’ve got discipline, I’ve got issues. To really dedicate myself to Vision Zero is hard.”
Tom Wald, a member of the Pedestrian Advisory Committee, wonders how the plan's initiatives would be prioritized – both in a budgetary sense and in the sense of how the plan will be passed from council to council.
"[I]s someone going to be reminding city council members to put in money for sidewalk funding? And are we looking at alternative ways to fund building sidewalks out?” he asks.
The plan is also past its deadline, which raises concerns for the implementation of possible future projects. The Vision Zero plan was supposed to be presented to the council last fall. Levy with the Public Safety Commission says that’s a concern.
“Here we’re talking about human lives, about human safety," he says. "And it’s taking forever."
He says where there are dozens of stakeholders, boards and commissions involved in a City of Austin project, none of them have true responsibility or accountability.