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Questions linger over Travis County’s F1 road contributions

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 by Michael Kanin

As fellow Travis County court members voted to take another step yesterday toward committing county funds for road projects needed by Austin’s Formula 1, Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt continued to raise questions about the financial stability of the team behind the Circuit of the Americas racetrack.  


“Basically, they’re asking us to subsidize their start-up costs,” she told In Fact Daily. “They appear to be out of money – or at least out of money for the necessary improvements to make that site appropriate for that number of people.”


Eckhardt responded to questions after she represented the lone vote against the idea of seeking more information from track builders about an economic incentives application they made last week. Though the court’s vote in this case represents only some level of interest in the application, it also indicates a willingness on the part of the majority of court members to at least vet the proposal.


(Tuesday afternoon, the Austin Business Journal reported that the Austin Formula 1 race had received roughly $200 million in additional funding from investors in February. This included money from at least one major new investor, hair care mogul John Paul DeJoria, one of the founders of John Paul Mitchell Systems.)


County Judge Sam Biscoe told In Fact Daily that he wasn’t concerned about the idea that track organizers were running low on cash. “I went out and looked at the project and they have just a whole lot of activity,” he said. “Every time you see a person or a piece of equipment you see dollars.”


If ultimately approved, the incentives package would help offset the cost of improvements to a handful of roads in the vicinity of the still-under-construction Circuit of the Americas. The planned construction would both address a handful of public safety concerns and perhaps help mitigate the anticipated heavy traffic impact of the Formula 1 event.


Biscoe and Commissioners Ron Davis and Margaret Gomez voted for the item. Commissioner Karen Huber was off the dais.


Track Media and Community Relations Manager Ali Putnum told In Fact Daily via email that racetrack builders were “prepared to pay upfront” for the roads. However, Putnum qualified that statement. “We are seeking a performance-based reimbursement for costs we will bear upfront that will benefit residents and business owners in the area around the Circuit,” Putnum continues. “For the reimbursement to be performance based, we would need to make the road expansions/improvements up to county specifications.”


Race organizers and track developers have sought funds from each of the jurisdictional entities connected with the track. After initially awarding funds, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs has informed Formula 1 organizers that the state will not release any of the economic development dollars until after the race is over. Though the City of Austin signed off on economic incentives – a requirement in this case for state money – Council Members arranged to have race investors pick up that tab, which amounts to $4 million a year for 40 years (see In Fact Daily, June 17, 2011).


In addition to the incentives issue, Travis County officials are still waiting on a series of permit applications that would allow events at the track to move forward. They include mass gatherings permits, a public safety plan, and a traffic management plan. Last week, court members imposed an initial April 30 deadline and a final June 1 deadline for those documents. That would set up a public hearing on those matters for sometime in July.


Funding for the roads will be back for more court discussion next week.

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