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County grants permit, clears path for F1 Grand Prix’s November race

Wednesday, June 6, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Austin’s Formula 1 Grand Prix cleared its last major hurdle on Tuesday as the Travis County Commissioners Court approved a Mass Gatherings permit for the race. With that done, organizers have only facilities inspections from county fire and health officials to clear before race day scheduled Nov. 16.


The commissioners’ unanimous vote came after a morning’s worth of testimony. Much of it came in opposition to the permit from area residents worried about the what they foresee as a dramatic negative impact the Formula 1 event will have on their mobility.


Nikelle Meade, a partner at Brown McCarroll, made the argument for the race. Meade pointed to efforts made by F1 officials and their representatives to collect citizen input about the event. She also argued that race organizers and their consultants had worked extensively with Travis County officials to put together a series of plans mandated for their permit application. These include a public safety plan, a traffic management plan and a look at the site’s health and sanitation.


A host of area roads would be closed to parking, pedestrians, and bicycles throughout the weekend of the race, according to traffic regulations passed by the court to complement the race’s traffic management plan. These include portions of Elroy Road, Pearce Lane, Ross Road and McAngus Road, as well as six other sections of roadway in the immediate vicinity of the track in eastern Travis County. Pearce, Kellam Lane and McAngus would all be subject to contraflow traffic procedures. This means each of these roads would turn into one-way streets to funnel traffic into and out of the area before and after the race.


McAngus, Elroy and Kellam are all undergoing some construction to upgrade road conditions in advance of the dramatic increase in traffic expected on race weekend. These upgrades will come at a cost of more than $4 million that will ultimately be paid for by the county.


In his questioning, County Judge Sam Biscoe was careful to point out that much of this construction was on the county’s to-do list, even without the race. “(Elroy Road) has actually been on our list for a while now,” Travis County Traffic Program Manager David Greear told Biscoe. “McAngus? We’ve probably accelerated that by about one year – it’s clearly in our 2013 work plan.”


Still, neighbors worried about the impact of traffic. Elroy Neighborhood Association President Cathy Olive suggested that commissioners reduce the maximum number of people allowed in the F1 Mass Gatherings permit to 150,000 from 250,000. “Knock that back to 150,000 over a three-day period for this year only until the roads can be approved to handle traffic,” she said. “(The race) can still make money at 150,000. People can still go to the race, but it will be a safer number of vehicles on the road to manage.”


Commissioners did not entertain Olive’s idea.


Though county officials couldn’t yet sign off on some of the health and safety infrastructure at the track – simply because much of it isn’t constructed yet – they uniformly agreed that what was there satisfied the minimum requirements of the Mass Gatherings Permit. Biscoe agreed, and ruled that the race had earned its permit. (The court vote on the document came after that ruling.)


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt pushed for the inclusion of monitoring of the air quality of the region near the track. Eckhardt, who has been against any subsidy for road construction for track operators, found her way to joining her colleagues on the vote to approve the permit.


“I remain deeply concerned about what I consider an excessive public subsidy at the state level,” she said, referring to incentives provided by the Texas Comptrollers’ office to draw the race to Austin, “but I will not hold my pick over that…for what I think has been a tremendous job done by our staff and also (race officials).”

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