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Austin to spend $1 million on safety upgrades for Rainey Street trailhead and bar district

People walk down Rainey Street
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT
The Austin Parks and Recreation Department has proposed more sidewalks and lighting in the Rainey Street district as the city responds to safety concerns.

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More improvements are on the way for Rainey Street after the community called for better safety measures in the area.

Rainey Street, the popular entertainment district lined with bars, apartments and hotels in downtown Austin, backs up to Lady Bird Lake and the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail.

Temporary lighting, a camera and new fencing were installed near the Rainey Street trailhead in March. The changes were in response to the deaths of Jason John, who had gone missing after a night on Rainey Street and was later found in the lake, and Jonathan Honey, who drowned in the area just weeks later.

Family and friends of John and several community members whose loved ones also drowned in the lake publicly called on city leaders to make improvements to the area — not just the trailhead but to the bar district as well.

The Rainey Street trailhead is notoriously dark, making it hard for those who are unfamiliar with the area to see the lake at night. For the last few months, the city has been looking at how to improve the area longterm so it is safe.

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department earlier this month announced $1 million in upgrades, including a new camera at the trailhead, more lighting and sidewalks along East Avenue. The department said the upgrades will take about a year to complete.

Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeeley said the hope is to direct people away from the water by encouraging people to use the well-lit streets and sidewalks.

“The further we can have people from the water, the better the safety outcomes can be,” she said.

But the city knows that people will still use the trail, so dimmed street lights will be installed along it.

The Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit that maintains the Hike-and-Bike Trail, is also making improvements to the trailhead and attached pocket park at the corner of East Avenue and Cummings Street. In addition to beautifying the area, the plan calls for $86,000 in new street lights.

“If there is some low-level lighting it will be appropriate for people to see and not too invasive for the wildlife, and that is a further safety measure that will help individuals stay safe if they choose the trail,” McNeely said.

Josh Gale was a former roommate and close friend of John's and has for months called for changes. After looking at the new proposal, he told KUT he thinks improvements are off to a good start “but we need to keep doing more.”

“This is only the parks and rec side of everything,” he said. “We are waiting to see what the city says about improvements at Rainey Street bars. Now we want more cameras near the bars, and we want to know if people are being drugged at the bars.”

Earlier this summer, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services began piloting a program near Rainey Street, where two medics are stationed at the south end of the area to respond to any needs at the bars, including people who are drunk. Medics also routinely monitor the trailhead.

Michael Wright, assistant chief over EMS operations, said two weeks ago, medics were able to stop a man who was just a few feet away from entering the lake.

“Everyone involved agreed that was a life-saving intervention,” Wright said.

Gale said he and others would like to see the city invest more in this program to make it permanent.

“With it already having a success and saving someone’s life, we want to make sure this program is funded because saving someone’s life is worth every penny spent," Gale said.

The city's draft budget for next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, was released Sunday night but does not include money for this program permanently. But Wright said money has been added to the overtime budget, which is currently how the program pays medics who staff the area.

Gale said he and others will continue to push for more investment in Rainey Street improvements.

“We want to ensure everyone gets home safely so this does not keep happening to people,” Gale said.

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Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at lmorenolozano@kut.org. Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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