Off Course: City Fees Trip Up Athletic Events
Organizers of local running, cycling, and triathlon events grapple with increased traffic-control costs
Last Saturday would have marked the third annual Junior Dilloman Triathlon in Austin, with some 200 kids swimming, cycling, and running their hearts out in Austin's Jester Estates. At the end of the day, they would all be winners, with every participant awarded a medal for completing the course.
That's what would have happened had soaring city traffic-control costs not forced the triathlon to fold. Nonprofit Austin Triathletes produced the annual event as a community service to introduce kids to the sport and exercise in general. It was the group's contribution to the growing American problem of juvenile obesity and diabetes and a small step toward realizing Mayor Will Wynn's dream of making Austin America's fittest city by 2010. The Junior Dilloman was never designed to make money, Sandy Ferguson, the triathlon's volunteer would-be race director, says. The entry fee was kept low at $35. The group lost money on it the first two years, she says, and at best hoped to break even this year. But when traffic-control costs tripled, she says, the group decided it couldn't afford to go forward with this year's event. "I was pretty sad, because we had an opportunity to show kids how fun this [competing in triathlons] could be and to give them a fun experience," Ferguson says. "When you think about the impact you can have on a younger mind, if they have one special moment in their lives, that can carry them."
About 120 running, cycling, or triathlon events -- more than two a week -- take place in the city limits each year. Most of them benefit charity, and local nonprofits depend on them heavily for fundraising. All have been seeing increased traffic-control costs since about six to nine months ago, says Paul Carrozza, owner of RunTex and Austin's most visible runner. RunTex produces 20 running events a year and helps produce another 80, all of which benefit nonprofits. For instance, he says, the Go for the Gold 10K and Fiesta 5K, held together in March, saw traffic-control costs soar from $1,900 last year to $20,000 this year. The runs benefit Southwest Key Programs Inc., a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth in East Austin. "Fundraisers don't do well," Carrozza says.
In order to block off streets, an event must submit a traffic-control plan to the city's Right of Way Management office. The plan proposes how many orange cones are needed to safely delineate the running and/or cycling courses and how many barricades are needed to block off intersections. Then the Right of Way office either approves the plan or changes it. Two local companies -- United Rentals or N-Line Traffic Maintenance -- deliver and place the cones and barricades.
The Junior Dilloman's bike and run courses stretched along 2 miles of low-traffic, residential streets. Last year, Right of Way Management required cones be placed every 80 feet along the course. This year, the requirement jumped to every 20 feet, quadrupling the number of cones and tripling the bill from United Rentals. Jason Redfern, Right of Way Management division manager, says the stricter requirements are necessary to keep runners and cyclists safe. While he can't recall an incident of a participant being injured during a race, growing traffic and increased population density within the city call for heightened traffic-safety measures, he says. "The tighter [cone] spacing is to better delineate the runners and traveling public, so runners don't run into oncoming traffic and to keep cars from sneaking into course," Redfern says.
The city follows the minimum standards set by the Texas Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, he says, which addresses traffic control during road construction but not directly during athletic events. In fact, the city lacks a set of ordinances geared specifically toward traffic control for athletic events, which has led, event organizers say, to arbitrary and inconsistent enforcement by Right of Way Management.
"You find yourself in a peculiar position where you sound like you're arguing against safety," John Conley, who produces the AT&T Austin Marathon, says. "We are not arguing for lax safety measures. We're saying there has to be some consistency and predictability in how the city enforces its ordinances." Conley says his traffic-control costs have ballooned from about $40,000 in 2005 to $80,000 in 2007. The city has required more and more cones and barricades, he says, for no apparent reason. "We have a perfect safety record," he says.
The city's requirements go way beyond what's necessary to keep runners safe, says Conley, adding that Austin's measures are "ultraconservative" compared to other Texas cities where he produces races.
Redfern says his office is looking into alternatives to help alleviate costs. One proposal, he says, is to offer five or six prepackaged courses to choose from, eliminating the need for each event to provide a traffic-control plan, which can cost up to $3,000.
Carrozza is spearheading the effort to find solutions from the organizers' side. A self-described fitness philanthropist, Carrozza sits on the mayor's, the governor's, and the president's fitness councils. He says the mayor (who runs in many local races), City Council, and the city manager are supportive of the events and committed to finding solutions.
"Everyone wants these events to go on," Carrozza says. "We're really in an adaptive phase, and we're working with the city to come up with solutions."