The Travis County Commissioners Court approved funding Sept. 5 for a two-year safety pilot program that adds three new deputies to the county's payroll at a budget cost of $530,290.
Though Travis County isn't slated to officially adopt its 2019-20 budget until Sept. 24, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, Precinct 3, said the money allocation for the pilot program is official.
Daugherty said the salary portion of the budget for the program amounts to about $360,000-$380,000 total for the three deputies, and the rest of the budget is for the purchase of vehicles. He added revenue collected from fines and tickets should serve to balance out the money the county is allocating for the program.
"Obviously, next year we won't be spending money on vehicles," Daugherty said. "Hopefully, this year we will witness enough revenue to offset the expense of these salaries. You can't put quotas on people. That's not legal. But I think ... we can make this cost-neutral."
The program specifically assigns two deputies to Hwy. 290 from Austin city limits to the Hays County line, and adds a deputy to Hwy. 71 from Bee Cave city limits to the western edge of Travis County, according to Travis County Constable Stacey Suits.
"A bunch of us have been concerned about high speed crashes and fatalities on Hwy. 71 and 290, and so our goal here is to reduce the number of collisions and fatalities on those two highways," Suits said, adding officials are hoping to get the three new deputies on the highways starting Nov. 1.
Suits said the effort will concentrate on daylight hours during the normal work week. A major contributor to the dangerous conditions on the two highways is commercial trucks coming into the area from Burnet County that aren't inspected and are driven by people without Texas commercial drivers licenses.
"Some of these trucks are flat[-out] unsafe, and they can’t stop because they're loaded and speeding, and they’ve been blowing those red lights out on 71," Suits said.
Other county and state departments, including the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Transportation, have been working with Suits and local safety activist group Safer71 to try to find workable solutions to highway accidents in western Travis County.
A press release issued by Safer71 on Sept. 5 states the group, with Suits and Daugherty, has been advocating for permanent additional enforcement for the past six months with the goal of increasing officer presence and reinforcing the single officer currently operating along that stretch of Hwy. 71.
“While we continue to work with TxDOT for safety improvements on SH 71 West, the reality is that bad drivers on good roads are still a safety risk. Solving that requires changing their habits,” Safer71 President Greg Short said in the release. “Enforcement is a key part of this process."
The release also states that concerted efforts from DPS, Travis County Sheriff's Office and the Bee Cave Police Department from 2018 to August 2019 have yielded an 86% reduction in deaths, a 34% reduction in total injuries and a 15% reduction in total crashes on West Hwy 71.
Suits said Travis County officials have scheduled the safety pilot program for re-examination two years from implementation, but depending on its success, that could happen sooner than November 2021.
"If we’re as effective as I think we’re going to be, we might revisit [the program’s needs] by the next budget year," Suits said.
There are no established metrics regarding program goals at this point, Suits said, adding the overall goal is to reduce collisions and fatalities along the designated portions of the two highways.
Statistics from the TxDOT Crash Records Information System, CRIS, that are included in the release from Safer71 show that between Nov. 1, 2017 and Aug. 21, 2018, there were seven fatalities on the stretch of Hwy. 71 from Southwest Parkway to the western Travis County line,
From Nov. 1, 2018 to Aug. 21, 2019, there has been only one fatality on that stretch of Hwy. 71. Still, Suits said conditions along the thoroughfare need monitoring.
"The problem we have out there is the high speeds," Suits said. "These used to be rural highways, but now they’ve become suburban highways, so you’ve got people pulling out on the road and then people coming way too fast, and then collisions happen. It’s just that simple. We’ve got to get the speeds down."