City to consider $5.5 million customs facility for F1 flights
The City of Austin, concerned that the customs and immigration facility at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is too small to effectively handle potential Formula One charter flights, could spend almost $5.5 million on a temporary facility under a no-bid contract coming before the City Council on Thursday.
The city does not intend to ask organizers of the November race to help pay for the airport terminal extension and customs facility, officials said, arguing that efficient processing of travelers will help burnish the city's international image and that the facility would be available to handle large commercial flights from Europe that the city hopes to attract.
Jim Smith, executive director of the city's Aviation Department, said the city intends to greatly expand the permanent customs and immigration facility at the airport in the next few years and that the sole source contract with Siemens Industry Inc. to build, equip and maintain the terminal addition would fill that gap.
"We'll need this interim facility for three to five years," Smith said. "Ultimately, it's an investment on the part of the airport to position itself to attract international traffic somewhere down the road. ... We're looking at this as an investment."
But former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, who has been critical of local and state government spending to support the F1 weekend, said it is an investment tied directly to a single private event.
"That blows up the City Council's claim that they weren't putting any city money into the F1 deal," Aleshire told the American-Statesman in an email. "Now, the City is going to spend over $5 million on immigration processing of rich foreign visitors to the four-day F1 event. How much more of this will Austin taxpayers tolerate?"
Julie Loignon, vice president for public and community relations with Circuit of the Americas, said in an email that the proposed terminal expansion would help with other large Austin events such as South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
"Since the improvements will benefit our entire community for years to come, we do not believe it is our company's responsibility to underwrite their costs," she said.
Currently, Austin's only regular international service involves AirTran and United flights to and from Canc£n, Quintana Roo, typically on Boeing 737 airplanes with 130 to 140 seats. The existing customs facility can handle 90 to 120 passengers an hour, the city said.
Austin should expect several chartered jumbo jets from overseas, each carrying 350 or more passengers, in the days before the race, based on the experience of other U.S. cities that have hosted F1 races, Smith said. Charter carriers are not required to notify an airport more than 30 days out that they are coming, Smith said, so the city does not know how many might show up.
"We may get no charters. We may get 15," he said.
Indianapolis, which hosted F1 races from 2000 through 2007, had six to 12 international charter flights per year, Smith said. The result here, he said, would be very long lines and a several-hour wait for people to get through customs.
"That's not the way to put your visitors in a good mood," Austin City Council Member Bill Spelman said.
The alternative to building a temporary facility, Smith and Spelman said, is to inform charter operators that they will have to land in Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston instead. Race fans would then have to take connecting flights to Austin or get here via car or bus.
"That would be a viable option and wouldn't cost any money," Smith said. "The downside is that it wouldn't help Austin's image."
The possibility of an Austin-area F1 race first surfaced in May 2010. After questions about whether the race would actually occur, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said late last year that it would take place in November.
Smith, asked by the Statesman twice this week when airport or city officials began planning for a temporary customs facility, wasn't specific.
"In the process of realizing it was going to happen, we started checking with other airports that had experience dealing with Formula One," he said.
But now, with less than five months before race day, "there's not time for bidding," Smith said. So the city is turning to Siemens, which he said already works with the city on maintenance operations at the airport.
Approaching just one company for the temporary facility, rather than putting the project out for multiple bids, is "not the strongest negotiating position," Smith said. The price, he said, remains in flux and could be lower than the $5.45 million the council is being asked to approve. That includes up to $5 million for the setup and first two years, and then $150,000 annually for three additional years.
He said that several international companies — the unit of Siemens involved in this project is based in Portugal, Smith said — have built such temporary terminals, including for World Cup soccer events and the Olympics. This would be Siemens' first such project in the U.S., he said.
If the contract is approved Thursday, that will leave a tight time frame to finalize the contract and design, install the building and equipment, and make sure it passes muster with U.S. Customs and Border Protection before the Nov. 16-18 event.
"Tight is a kind word," Smith said. "It's going to be very, very difficult to have this open by the time the event comes around." The Statesman