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Austin Planners play 30 questions with F1 promoters
Local promoter Full Throttle Productions maintains it is racing toward a December groundbreaking on a planned Formula One track, and will be ready to host its first event in 2012, but a joint land-use review committee made up of city, county and state planners has waved a caution flag that reads:

We got some questions. Actually, quite a few of them.

In a four-page memo sent to Full Throttle, the planners peppered the promoter with questions about the 900-acre project. The breadth of the queries suggests the plan to bring the international race to Austin in two years is still some distance from satisfying the government bureaucrats who will need to sign off on it before any concrete is poured — an assessment confirmed by Joe Gieselman, executive director of the Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources Department.

“They’re getting there,” he said. “But they still have a way to go.”

Project attorney Richard Suttle said the F1 project is on schedule and is working hard to answer the planners’ concerns. Full Throttle, the company run by local promoter Tavo Hellmund, has recently made a raft of professional hires, including two traffic engineering firms, to generate some of the information.

Papers filed with the City of Austin indicate the company is also starting to get into some real expenses: Initial grading and the construction of a road through the site are estimated to cost $16 million. That’s still only a fraction of the estimated $200 million cost to complete the track and surrounding buildings.

The issues recently raised by the planning committee range from the picky — “If RV parking is anticipated, will utility hook-ups be provided?” — to the rubber-meets-the-road variety: “Has the applicant set aside funding and a schedule for improving off-site roadways?”

Indeed, Gieselman said transportation remains on the top of planners’ concerns, consuming two-thirds of the questions sent to Full Throttle. He reiterated earlier statements that he thinks it will be very difficult for Full Throttle to complete permanent road improvements prior to the first race, meaning the first year’s event could be messy, traffic-wise.

“They would like to think they can traffic-manage everything away, but we think there needs to be some hard capital improvements,” Gieselman said.

The multi-million-dollar question, of course, is who will wind up paying for the necessary upgrades. Gieselman said some possibilities are: Full Throttle alone; Full Throttle and the county and/or state together; or a special taxing district that might, say, levy a small tariff on admission tickets.

Suttle said he expects a traffic impact analysis to be completed within a couple of weeks, which should start the discussion of how much road work is needed to get traffic flowing. “We expect to pay for some improvements,” he said.

Traffic is far from the planners’ only concern, however. The memo noted, for example, that the facility would likely keep fuel on the site, which means the county will want to review the project for hazardous materials storage. That, in turn, means questions will need to be addressed about fire apparatus access and sufficient water for fire suppression.

“Does the applicant have an incident action plan” that addresses “security, communications, law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services (both ground and air)?” the planning committee wondered.

The impact of an F1 event on Austin-Bergstrom International Airport generally remains something of a blank so far. “It’s a blind spot,” Gieselman said. “We know from F1 races elsewhere in the world that it’s a big deal.”

A spokesman for the city’s Aviation Department, Jim Halbrook, said airport staff had not been involved in any direct talks with Full Throttle or government planners. Still, “As site development progresses, we anticipate being more involved,” he said.

Generally, though, Halbrook said airport staff did not anticipate any big capacity issues during an F1 race weekend. He noted that the airport currently operates at nowhere near its capacity, and could handle a big influx of passengers and cargo without too much difficulty.

The same was true for helicopter traffic, he said. Formula One fans are known for their fondness for helicopters, and it is anticipated that whirlybird traffic between ABIA and the track will be brisk. But Halbrook said the airport has two helipads, with ample empty concrete expanses available to add more.

In short, he concluded: “We expect it to be busy, but we’re prepared for it.”

In the memo, government planners also had questions about the environment, ranging from ground-level concerns about underground gas lines and sediment control during construction, to more hypothetical what-ifs because of the site’s location in a floodplain:

“We have heard that there may be a significant amount of parking and camping in the floodplain during events held at the track. This area is prone to flash flooding … What type of evacuation plans have you prepared to ensure the safety of the campers?” The Statesman

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