The sight has become a familiar and sometimes frustrating one for motorists on Barton Springs Road: yellow-vested police officers stopping traffic on the busy road to let cars enter or exit Austin Energy’s headquarters a hundred yards or so west of South First Street.
The building at 721 Barton Springs Road is one of several in Central Austin, including a few skyscrapers and some churches on Sunday, whose managers for the past few years have started paying off-duty police officers to periodically halt traffic flow so employees or worshippers can more easily and safely cross heavy traffic.
The distinction at Austin Energy’s building is that the money for that purpose — almost $57,000 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 — comes from public funds, in this case the people who pay for the utility’s electricity. Austin Energy first began hiring the officers in 2014, city spokesman David Green said in an email response to American-Statesman questions about the practice.
Austin Energy, which has a 375-space parking garage behind its five-story office building, uses officers — sometimes one at its entrance driveway and one at its exit — for several hours each weekday to direct traffic. The officers, who work normally for a variety of local law enforcement agencies, are each paid $40 an hour for the moonlighting jobs, Green said. This year’s $66,000 budget will cover about six hours for each work day.
No other city government buildings use police for this purpose, including One Texas Center a block away, which likewise fronts Barton Springs Road, and City Hall, which has a large underground parking garage that exits onto congested Lavaca Street. No city permit is required for buildings, public or private, that use police officers in this manner.
City officials said this week that the Austin Energy money is well spent, and that the police officers’ raised palms on Barton Springs in fact help traffic.
“Providing traffic management helps prevent gridlock at key intersections and protect pedestrians,” Green said. “It’s legal, and it improves safety.”
Sgt. Mike Jones, who directs the Austin Police Department’s special events unit, said the department has no direct involvement with the Austin Energy situation. But he said he is familiar with the operation from driving by often. Despite drivers’ perception that the stops are lengthening their trip for the convenience of the utility’s workers, Jones said the officers likely are decreasing overall congestion.
“Around the high-traffic hours, vehicles that are going eastbound get stopped at the South First light, cars begin to back up and then block that exit for people” leaving Austin Energy, Jones said. In those cases, he said, the officers stop traffic just west of the Austin Energy exit and allow people to leave while other cars are stopped.
Without trained police on hand making such decisions, he said, the Austin Energy cars instead would try to exit into moving traffic and thus cause slowdowns.
“I would imagine there are several driveways like that in downtown,” Jones said. The parking garage for the 100 Congress office building, which exits onto West Second Street between Congress Avenue and Colorado Street, often uses officers to stop traffic for parking customers. Garages on Brazos Street near East Fourth Street and on San Jacinto Boulevard near East Cesar Chavez Street likewise use off-duty officers in this way.
So does University United Methodist Church at West 24th and Guadalupe streets, but only on Sundays from about 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The officer there, Austin police Cmdr. Nick Wright, is paid $25 an hour to help churchgoers go between the church and a parking lot on the west side of Guadalupe, said the Rev. John Elford of University Methodist.
“There’s definitely traffic, and he’s out there trying to get cars to slow down” so people can cross the five-lane road, Elford said. “You want to make it convenient for people to come to church. And the reality is that we have an older population. It’s just easier for them to come straight across Guadalupe.”