SXSW safety, traffic concerns a top priority for Austin

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — After the deadly police chase and crash during South by Southwest 2014 that killed four people, the City of Austin is making sure key departments are collaborating to make sure visitors and residents stay safe during the annual 10-day interactive, film and music event.

The Austin Center for Events along with the Austin Police Department, Fire Department, Austin-Travis County EMS and City Transportation and Health Services Departments met the media Wednesday to discuss what can best be described as refinements to the evolving city’s safety and mobility plan for ‘Southby.’

Crowds at Rachael Ray's Feedback party during SXSW 2015. (KXAN Photo)

With President Barack Obama’s visit on Friday and the First Lady’s visit next week, the traffic situation is one of the biggest issues facing first responders and event planners. City employees who are non-essential will be allowed to leave work at noon on Friday. But, the City is also asking employers to offer alternate work schedules for their employees on that day such as telecommuting or using public transit options.

“It’s nothing we can’t handle and we have everything in place to handle it appropriately,” said APD Asst. Chief Chris McIlvain. “We will have numerous additional personnel assigned specifically to downtown traffic management.” All in all, expect to see 175 APD officers a day working SXSW, rising to 300 during the final music weekend. That includes 120 working just crowd control. That is similar to last year’s number.

APD will staff the President’s visit separately with extra officers and members of the Department’s Executive Protection Team. Any overtime will not come from SXSW security funds but from APD’s regular operating fund that would cover a Presidential visit any time of year, a city spokesperson confirmed Wednesday.

The Transportation Department is also working with Transportation Network Companies such as Uber and Lyft to make sure drivers use designated drop-off and pick-up locations on Fifth and Seventh streets. People making their way downtown should try to use mass transportation such as Capital Metro, which is expanding service during SXSW.

Safety at SXSW: 2016

New this year, APD will have a 20 foot-wide emergency lane down East Sixth Street – the hub of SXSW – to allow greater access for officers and emergency vehicles. The department will also have barricades around the outer perimeter for SXSW and will have two marked patrol vehicles and an officer at each to prevent vehicles from entering festival zones.

Gone will be some of the water-filled barriers and single vehicle protection model brought in last year since this year’s decision to re-open Sixth Street, Red River and Rainey Streets during certain times of the day to help with traffic flow, Austin Center for Events Manager Bill Manno said.

This is also the first year for the department’s extended DWI enforcement. No Refusal kicked of March 4 and runs through March 22.

Last year though, a KXAN investigation revealed detectives were pulled off regular duty to cover the need for extra personnel to staff barricades. As well, KXAN showed how moving nearly 90 police vehicles downtown, meant patrol officers in other parts of Austin who normally run solo, doubling up in one car. That shouldn’t happen this year to keep response times on track, police say.

“We weren’t planning for it like we were this year (and putting together a last minute plan), so it’s not creating the same types of challenges,” said McIlvain.

The city has also budgeted $1.5 million for police security overtime where every shift will be staffed by an officer who has volunteered for the extra paid duty. Last year, overtime dollars totaled less than half that amount since many officers were pulled off other assignments.

Special Events Permit process is smoother

City of Austin Corporate Special Events Program Manager William Manno says the city’s process for temporary use, change-of-use and sound applications has greatly improved.

“After last year, we enacted a simple point of entry for (emailed) applications and it allows us to track them better,” explained Manno. This year the city cut-off applications on Feb. 5, when it received 150 applications. As of Tuesday, 14 permits were withdrawn, denied or cancelled. Another 9 or so remain pending, Manno said.

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