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Dealing with Austin’s drinking problem

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The SXSW incident is raising questions again about whether or not alcohol has become too much a part of the Austin entertainment experience.

Last week a late night talk show host was here and joked that his visit to Austin was actually an intervention saying, the city has a drinking problem.

There's some truth in that comment. According to state records, a lot of drinking goes on at bars and restaurants in Travis County, so much the county is at the top of a recent analysis. The hard drinking is raising some hard questions.

It was still the morning rush hour when a St. Patrick's Day celebration was served up. The scene at the Austin bar, according to substance abuse specialist Justin Harvey, is another confirmation that Austin has a drinking problem

"Austin's drinking issue goes hand and with the culture we have here," said Harvey who is the CEO of The Arbor Treatment Center in Austin.

The abuse of alcohol may have factored into the deadly SXSW crash Thursday. For Harvey, it serves as a community wake up call.

"How to contain it is really the question."

With the expectation an alcoholic relationship will continue -- Harvey offers three suggestions for future events and festivals in Austin: buses should be parked outside of bars at night offering free rides, education programs for bartenders should be enhanced, and more non-alcoholic drinks should be offered during the events. The idea of building a sobriety center- offering treatment rather than incarceration - according to Harvey is another idea worth discussing.

"If we are going to condone mass alcohol consumption, we can't handle it on such a punitive level," said Harvey.

Some states use part of their alcohol sales tax to fund substance abuse programs. Texas doesn't do that. But it was estimated adding extra 25-cents to each drink could raise $2.2 billion. But getting lawmakers to vote for and earmark a tax hike would be no simple task.

Finding a solution may take a long hard look into the mirror. A reflection on what Austin was and what Austin is becoming. The image that's taking shape is somewhat troubling for the city's top cop.

"It started in east 6th Street and it continues to spread and the question is where do we stop the spread of bars," said Police Chief Art Acevedo.

With an over-time budget that's been cut by several million dollars, Acevedo says his department is already spread thin.

"We don't have the level of resources to continue to be able to safely police an ever growing entertainment district and we can't continue to draw resources from across the city to the core of the city, something has to give at some point," said Acevedo.

Adding more police according to Acevedo is not the lone silver bullet.

"I think it's going to take moving forward in this fastest growing city, a multi-disciplinary and multi-modal approach giving people options to be able to transport themselves to these venues safely."

Expanding the current public transportation network will require funding, and where that will come from is the hard question facing this hard drinking town.

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