To those of us not familiar with Texas politics and government, the permit process has been a bit confusing. Generally speaking, the project has been in phases and several different local governmental bodies have been involved. The obvious players are the State of Texas, Travis County, and the City of Austin. But, there have also been rulings by others including the Austin Environmental Board. Rather than trying to understand, much less explain, all of the maneuverings necessary to get permission to proceed, I will instead defer to one of the officials involved.
Joseph P. Gieselman is the Executive Manager of the Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources Department. In a December 8th, 2010 memo to the Commissioner's Court, he explained the permit process:
In order to meet the developer's deadlines, they have requested that a series of permits be issued for this project. The first permits in the series were for the pipeline relocation and the overhead utility relocation necessary for the project. TNR has already issued these relocation permits. The permit that is currently under review is for site grading. The site grading permit includes temporary erosion controls, site grading, installation of public water and wastewater mains, installation of drainage conveyance structures to route the upstream drainage to the water quality/detention features and installation of water quality and detention structures. The developer is seeking a variance to the County's requirement that a Conditional Letter of Map Revision (CLOMR) be obtained from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) prior to this issuance of the site grading permit application.
The December Commissioner's meeting had agenda item 9.B that considered the CLOMR variance. The variance was accepted by a 4 to 1 vote, thus clearing the way for the issuance of the site grading permit. What is unclear to me is whether or not the permit has actually been issued. I could not find this permit information listed in either the County's permit database or the City's. Perhaps someone more familiar with local government documents could help me out. I would greatly appreciate any help I could get.
One of the remaining hurdles to be crossed between the F1 developers and the AHJ (Authorities Having Jurisdiction) is the traffic plan. Everyone understands the need to move all competitors, vendors and attendees to and from the site safely and in a timely manner. It is also understood that the site must be prepared for a major incident that impacts the group as a whole. A plan must be in place that satisfies these concerns and has a reasonable chance of managing any conceivable probability. The plan must also insure that the event will not be a commercial failure due to undue delays that may sour the attendee’s personal experience and impact the future attendance at the event.
The Travis County Commissioners Court took no action on agenda item 9.A scheduled for the Dec. 14th meeting, an item that was meant to address the F1 traffic plans. The item was moved into the New Year, but the exact date has not been determined. Regarding the traffic plan, Mr. Gieselman said in his December 8th memo:
The last development permit that will be required for the site will include track paving and details, vertical building construction, driveway and parking lot paving, and private water, wastewater and electric services. Prior to issuance of the final site development permit it is expected that a Roadway Agreement will be brought to Commissioners Court that will require the developer to improve Elroy Road to a four lane road and widen and raise the existing bridge in order to accommodate the volume of traffic to and from events at the track.
The AHJ needs to have proposals mooted to them that can be approved without taking any gigantic risks. The traffic proposal previously submitted by FTP did not satisfy the staff of the AHJs, did not make anyone in Government comfortable, and basically was a “do nothing much to the roads” plan. The plan suggested that traffic management, mainly done via shuttle buses, contra flow, bicycle access, on-site camping, etc. would be all that is necessary.
It is clear, to anyone who is reasonably well informed, that this will not work. Instead, the real issue is who will pay for the necessary improvements. Will the developer pay for the improvements, or will the public pay for the improvements? It is clear that the County Commissioner's Court expects the improvements to be paid for by the developer.
I do not intend to get into a discussion about the philosophies regarding public funding for private development, but instead will look at the issue from a practical point of view regardless of who pays the freight.
In my opinion the roads that immediately surround the F1 site are inadequate for the demands of a major racing series. I cannot cite any studies, but I have been to racing events in six countries and more than 25 locations in the US. I have driven around the site, looked at the existing roads, and I recognize that the road infrastructure is inadequate. It barely satisfies the current daily demands. Improvements are needed and the Commissioner's Court has some demands.
In another memo to the Commission dated December 8th, Mr. Gieselman addressed agenda item 9.A:
Overall, Travis County agrees with the basic assumptions, routing of vehicles, and the use of contra-flow lanes included in the report. The one issue that Travis County does not agree on is the mixing of shuttle traffic with vehicular traffic on Elroy Road. We believe that the shuttle operations will not be successful unless shuttle vehicles have a dedicated lane of travel. Furthermore, Elroy Road will need an additional travel lane for emergency operations access. Currently Elroy Road from McAngus Road to the northern access point of the site is only two lanes with no shoulders and the submitted traffic plan proposes using both lanes as contra-flow operations with no lanes available for shuttle services or emergency operations access. Thus, Travis County believes Elroy Road from McAngus Road to the northern access of the site needs to be widened to a minimum of 4 lanes. This work would include the widening of the existing bridge structure on Elroy Road that spans Dry Creek.
The approximate cost for widening Elroy Road from a 2-lane roadway to a 4-lane roadway is $6 million. Travis County staff believes the cost associated with widening Elroy Road should be born by the developer.
It would appear that acceptance of this demand is a requirement to gain approval to proceed.
It was also revealed in the transcripts of the December 14th Commissioner's meeting that the TxDOT already has a project in place that will effectively make FM 812 a usable 4 lane road. Here is the quote from the transcript from staff member David Greer:
TxDOT was going to already repave FM 812 on the southern side of the site, and we've talked with TxDOT and TxDOT has agreed to re-stripe that road, which is a two-lane road, two nice wide lanes with shoulders to re-stripe it to where we can actually use it as a four-lane roadway when we need to. It will be striped as a two-lane road with wide shoulders, but when you need to for the site, for the race, we can actually use all four lanes.
That bit of information makes a great deal of impact on the feasibility of the entire traffic plan. If the developer does agree to widen Elroy Road, and TxDOT executes their existing plans for FM 812, many of the traffic concerns will be solved.
The Commission also agreed to consider any of the public funding solutions available including public improvement districts and public sports authorities. But, the immediate response required is for the developer to assume the costs of improvement to Elroy Road. Maybe he can recover the costs, maybe not. But, in order to keep this project going a decision much be taken very soon.
To summarize all this bureaucratic fog, I would just say this: if the developer agrees to the improvements to Elroy Road the permission process would be complete. I suggest they accept the Commission's recommendations and get the construction moving.