Students, advocates speak out about slow lighting improvements in West Campus

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Hannah Clark

Junior D’Andra Luster walks through West Campus back to her apartment on Feb. 8. Local safety organizations and UT students are frustrated by the city’s lack of communication about when West Campus lighting improvements will occur to increase safety amid rising crime rates.

Tori Duff

Local safety organizations and UT students are frustrated by the city’s lack of communication about when West Campus lighting improvements will occur to increase safety amid rising crime rates

Austin Energy is set to upgrade 1,125 existing streetlights to LED lights and install new fixtures in West Campus to improve visibility, according to a January 2019 city memo. The new lighting fixtures will cost upwards of $1.7 million and will be funded by a five-year city plan.

“Austin Energy is in the contracting process for engineering services to provide 229 new streetlights,” Calily Bien, Austin Energy senior public information specialist, said in an email. “Once started, we expect this project to be a two-year effort.” 

So far, only nonfunctioning streetlights have been repaired, and the city is working to maintain vegetation that blocks light from fixtures, Bien said.

Bien said no improvements have been made in accordance with the plans, but the company expects to begin this spring. However, some advocates say they have heard little about the timeline of the improvements since they were announced.

Currently, students can report nonoperational or blocked streetlights by calling 3-1-1 and reporting the number of the light pole, which is located on a placard on the light pole itself. 

Joell McNew, president of the nonprofit SafeHorns, said she has tried communicating with Austin Energy about the state of lighting improvements but has not received a concrete answer.

“There’s been no priority, no communication … it’s always (SafeHorns and parents) reaching out, asking for communication,” McNew said. “We should have a full understanding and expectation of some sort of results.”

Following multiple robberies in October 2020, some students voiced fear over safety in West Campus. David Carter, UT police department chief, said to KXAN in October 2020 that there will be upgrades to surveillance to improve safety. In November 2020, UTPD also decided to keep their blue and red vehicle lights on at night because of the robberies. 

However, some students did not support the decision, according to previous reporting by the Texan, as there is less trust in police presence within the Black community due to a history of police violence disproportionately affecting them. A June 2020 NPR/PBS NewsHour Poll found that 48% of Black Americans have very little or no confidence that police officers treat Black and white people equally. 

James Richardson, community outreach officer for student safety organization Horns for Safety, said the improvements need to happen more quickly to prioritize the safety of students currently living in West Campus.

“Unfortunately, (UTPD) doesn’t have jurisdiction in West Campus,” law student Richardson said. “The unfortunate consequence of that is that the University can't really do anything about how unsafe West Campus is, and City Hall seems reluctant to step in and be a leader there in speeding up the process.”

Political communications junior Chloe Baker started a petition in 2019 to improve lighting in West Campus, which received more than 1,000 signatures.

“(Improving lighting) is a meaningful difference that can be made,” Baker said. “When a concern is voiced by multiple people, it’ll be voiced again and again.”

Richardson said groups such as Horns for Safety exist to maintain student voices for public safety, which is difficult since students only live in West Campus for a few years while in college.

“So many different student voices cycle in and out and that makes it tough to build momentum and really see progress,” Richardson said. “People who go to school here need to feel safe. If there were more light, it could be night and day difference.”

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Daily Texan's February 12 print edition.