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Austin Race Thrills, But Traffic, Economic Impact of F1 Questioned

Nathan Bernier, KUT News

Almost 83,000 people traveled to the Circuit of the Americas track in southeastern Travis County today to watch German driver Sebastian Vettel seize the pole position for Sunday’s Grand Prix. And while the track has received positive reviews, transportation to and from it was not without a few bumps in the road.

“The track is fantastic. The transportation leaves something to be desired,” said Hal Merchant, who travelled from the Reno, Nevada area with his girlfriend Judy Ashton. “The bus ride’s 30 minutes, but you spend an hour standing in line.”

Merchant said he wished he could have parked out at the track, and drove half the way there before being turned back. He said he lacked clear information about where to find a parking garage. Circuit of the America’s website lists shuttle pick-up points, but doesn’t offer details on where to park your car.

But the line was moving briskly as shuttle buses picked up people from 15th and Trinity Streets, where ticket scalpers were hanging around and asking to buy extra tickets. A line of chartered buses stretched for blocks down Trinity and twisted east down 12th Street.

As people filed through the queue, Stuart Walker was selling official F1 hats for $35, and he said most people were only interested in one team.

Ferrari, Ferrari, Ferrari. Half of Formula One is Ferrari,” Walker said. He travels around the world doing this, and has seen how other F1 cities handle transportation.

“The major cities we work such as Singapore, Montreal, there’s a metro or a bus or a train at the track,” Walker said. “Germany, parking is easy. Silverstone, miles of parking and also miles of shuttles from the train and the bus.”

“They’ve done well here, but [Austin] wasn’t quite ready for this,” Walker said.

At the Travis County Expo Center park-and-ride, there were reports of people having to wait up to an hour to find a place to leave their cars.

Travis County sheriff’s deputies were issuing citations of up to $500 to people who were dropped off near the track and tried to walk the final distance.

Downtown, about a dozen blocks are shut to traffic for Austin Fan Fest. Five stages have free music throughout the day. Pedestrians roam the streets stopping at various promotional booths run by brands like Pepsi, Pirelli tires, even Topo Chico mineral water. Food trucks are trying to sell meals. One area featured classic cars for sale.

“I love hearing all the different accents,” said Pflugerville resident Kathy O’Donnell, who was working as a guide near the Bud Light stage “Once you hear that accent, ‘Where are you from?’”

Circuit of the America organizers claim the four-day event will generate almost $300 million dollars in economic benefits to the Austin metropolitan area. But Ralph Gilmore, whose food truck Surf N’ Turf Po Boy is situated in the Austin Fan Fest area, says he hasn’t seen much of that yet.

“The restaurants and bars are wondering: there are so many people down here and they’re not eating or drinking. Where are they doing it?” Gilmore asked. “The last two days, I was just at my normal revenue.”

Today’s attendance was 82,710. Another 120,000 people are expected out at the track tomorrow.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport reported 17,000 people arriving by plane yesterday. On an average day, the airport sees 14,500 arrivals. There are also 47 private aircraft scheduled to arrive today, some of them personal jets owned by wealthy race fans.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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