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City revving up for Formula 1

Friday, June 15, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin is bracing for a crush of visitors coming this November for the state’s first-ever Formula 1 United States Grand Prix.


The inaugural event is expected to draw 120,000 fans, with about one-third of them coming from abroad. With the event taking place Nov. 16 to 18 – the weekend before Thanksgiving and always a big travel time – airport officials are scrambling to meet the high demand.


“The most important message I can give everybody is: don’t come to the airport on the Monday after Formula 1, because it’s going to be a mess,” Jim Smith, executive director of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport said Thursday in a briefing before City Council. The Monday before Thanksgiving is historically busy. “On top of that we’re going to have 120,000 people trying to leave town,” Smith said.


To accommodate the influx of travelers, particularly those coming from other countries, airport officials want to build a 25,000-square-foot temporary terminal to handle large, direct international flights. Smith plans to return to City Hall on June 28 to ask for funds to build the temporary terminal that could process up to 400 people per hour. Currently, the airport can handle about 90 to 120 international travelers per hour.


Smith expects that the temporary structure will remain in place for five years, while a permanent facility is constructed to take its place.


“We could have avoided putting up the temporary facility by telling charters ‘you can’t land in Austin. You’re going to have to land in Houston or Dallas to fly here’,” said Smith. “We’re conscious that Austin is trying to build its brand image on an international basis, and the only way to do that is by handling those people directly here in Austin. So the airport’s going to have to make the investment – and it’s going to be substantial– to get this up and running and be able to handle the guests that are going to be arriving.”


Right now, there are no firm figures for the number of international charter flights that will be coming to Austin. Charter flights are only required to register 30 days prior to arrival. Smith said he anticipated not knowing exact figures until a month prior to the race, though Indianapolis saw about six to 11 charter flights when it held a grand prix from 2000 to 2007.


Smith told Council that the airport is handling a lot of inquiries from people wanting to fly in helicopters. “Apparently, the people who have a lot more money than us don’t like to mess with us on the road, so they like helicopter transportation,” Smith said.


Smith explained that the Circuit of the Americas, the promoter of the Austin grand prix, was building landing pads on its East Travis County site. The airport is negotiating with the Texas National Guard to secure more additional pads at the airport.


“The biggest unknown is downtown, and identifying locations where it would be safe to land helicopters,” said Smith. Airport officials approve helicopter-landing sites in the city.


Rodney Gonzales, deputy director of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, told Council that his office had received 200 requests for limousine permits for the Grand Prix weekend.


To relieve congestion, the Circuit of the Americas will operate a shuttle bus network in partnership with the city, Travis County and Capital Metro. Two park-and-ride locations will be set up: downtown at the corner of Trinity and 15th Streets and at the Travis County Expo Center. Shuttles times are projected to be 80 minutes round trip, with the use of 538 buses, some of which will come in from out-of-state to meet demand.


Council Member Chris Riley, the Council’s best-known bicyclist, noted that the travel time by bicycle is about one hour – and pleasant.


In addition to the race, downtown traffic could be snarled by two non-official race festivals scheduled on streets downtown to take advantage of the influx of visitors. According to Assistant Director of Transportation Gordon Derr one event will take place between Third and Fourth Streets, and “may extend out onto Congress a bit” in the evenings. The other, called “Formula Fest,” would take place on Congress Avenue between Eighth and Eleventh Streets and around the Capitol Building.


Though Derr told Council that organizers of unrelated events were being discouraged from scheduling events that weekend, it is unclear whether others looking to cash in on the wealth of visitors might try to have extra functions.


“There’s still some uncertainty about if they have some big name folks come in to entertain, what that location is going to be. We’re going to have to work with everyone involved to find the best place,” Derr said.


Gonzales said that anticipating an event on the scale of SXSW was reasonable. He said his office plans to get information to Austinites, including working with the city’s 311 information line and emergency services at 911 to help handle complaints and confusion. Their goal was “as minimal disruption as possible,” he said.

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