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Court approves F1 variance but will wait to comment on traffic study

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Austin Formula 1 track continues to progress toward reality. Yesterday, it cleared its latest hurdle when the Travis County Commissioners Court voted to award track developers a flood plain variance. With that in hand, construction on the project can move forward.

 

Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez voted against the measure, citing environmental concerns and the flooding history of the area. Her arguments swayed none of her colleagues and the vote ended with only Gomez against the variance. 

 

In the process, the court also received a briefing on a traffic study conducted by Kimley-Horn and Associates. It was offered as proof that track developers had reduced the length of the delays spectators could expect after a Formula 1 event from 12 hours to three and a quarter. The study was met with some initial skepticism, and County Judge Sam Biscoe called for it to be brought back for a more detailed discussion.

 

Armbrust and Brown’s Richard Suttle, who has shepherded the track through its permitting process, told In Fact Daily that everything remains on schedule for a June 2012 opening. “That’s a ceremonial term of art,” he said when asked when developers would break ground on the project. “There’s lots of work already going on and we’re on schedule.”


Suttle came to court for the variance after it was discovered that a small portion of the track site rests on a flood plain. That fact came as something of a surprise. “What actually happened on this, just so you know, the flood plain was set and there were lines on the map that cut (it) off,” he said.

 

Any federal action on the project, a necessary step without the county variance, could take up to six months. As has been widely discussed, track developers have taken on an ambitious schedule that would have their project ready for a June 2012 race. For that to happen, construction on the facility needs to begin this month.

 

Gomez told her colleagues that, despite fiscal collateral put up by track developers to guard against any negatives, she wasn’t comfortable with granting the variance. “Is it really possible to ever return land to its original state once it’s been damaged?” she asked. “I just don’t think that it’s possible to do that. Then we have to settle for what we can get. And no amount of money will ever restore (it) back to its original state.”

 

“I think (Formula1) will achieve whatever they need to achieve by waiting for this letter from (the federal government),” she added.

 

However, County Executive Manager of Transportation and Natural Resources Joe Gieselman told the court that the area in question isn’t too large. “The flood place of dry creek has been studied,” he said. “It’s not like we’re talking about the entire 100-year flood plain, we’re talking about fingers of the flood plain that go up into the property — in some cases minor fingers.”

 

Suttle met with more resistance on the traffic study. As has been reported, that document suggests that 3,000 track visitors will arrive by bike on race day. There will also be a shuttle bus from off-site parking, 24,000 onsite spaces, and 500 arrivals by helicopter. Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt questioned those numbers.

 

“I am concerned about these assumptions,” she said. “The 3,000 arriving by bicycle? I’m a biker and I actually have a couple of friends who are tough enough to ride out East 71 … very few would be willing to do that. I don’t think that 3,000 people would be able to ride bikes out there.”

 

“I think that this 3.25 hour delay … is based on some assumptions that, if everything holds, yes, it will be 3.25,” she continued, “but based on these assumptions I don’t think there is a high probability that (they) will hold.”

 

David Greear, Travis County’s traffic manager, acknowledged that there could be some early hiccups. “The first year is probably going to be a mess,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be perfect (the next) two or three times, but I think it will get better over time.”

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