Studying other Formula One Grand Prix host cities around the world, City Manager Marc Ott said during a Wednesday morning press briefing, Austin officials have learned that three things can make or break an F1 weekend: Transportation, public safety, and weather. Austin, Ott said, has two out of three covered.
Inside the city's Emergency Operations Center in East Austin, city, county and Circuit of the Americas officials highlighted the collaboration among city departments and county, state, and federal agencies that for more than a year have been planning for the city's inaugural F1 weekend, now just 10 days away. "We've been working with a very single-focused and tracked mind" to prepare for the race, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo told the assembled media. Indeed, the partnerships – including Austin Police, Fire and EMS, 311, the Travis County Sheriff's Office, Star Flight, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the involvement of various federal agencies (Drug Enforcement Administration, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI and Department of State) – is one of the largest in city and county history, said Michael Hemby TCSO's planning manager.
The EOC will be open 24/7 beginning at 5:30am on Nov. 15, the day before the official start of F1 festivities at the track and in the city, and will remain open through Monday night, Nov. 19 to function as a public safety area command. "This ensures that all of our experts – including those from transportation, police, Emergency Medical Services, fire and communications – will be in one place to effectively and efficiently manage any issues that may arise during the race weekend," Ott said. Medics have been trained in special racetrack procedures; all three Star Flight helicopters will be staffed and ready to go – with one stationed at the track; emergency call-takers have been trained to handle calls from visitors speaking any number of languages; fire apparatus will be strategically stationed; and APD is ready to handle both race and city-related emergencies of all stripes – while also practicing a bit of "tourism-based policing," as Acevedo put it, with officers ready-and-willing to answer all visitor questions and to provide assistance in any scenario. (Frankly, he said, "we want that attitude everyday.")
Officials have looked to other cities to see how they manage F1 weekends, but Acevedo said that Austin is already pretty well equipped to manage large, diverse crowds – "best practices are developed here," he said, thanks to international events including South by Southwest, which this year drew roughly 240,000 visitors, noted Rodney Gonzales, deputy director of the city's Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services. The bottom line, Acevedo and other public safety officials said, is that "absent a catastrophe" the public safety planning developed for the F1 weekend will not drain resources and leave residents vulnerable. "Operational deployments will not result in a degradation of services to residents," Acevedo said.
Still, officials acknowledged that traffic will be a problem all weekend. Hemby said TCSO has worked with other county agencies and with DPS to stage public safety "assets" at key locations so that they can be ready to help with traffic management and respond rapidly to emergencies. Capital Metro is also on-board to help ease race weekend congestion, transpo agency President and CEO Linda Watson said. Metro Rail will run extended hours on Saturday and will run all day on Sunday; a Downtown circulator will run every 15 minutes as will the airport route, which will also drop passengers at the COTA shuttle pickup location near Waterloo Park. (All Cap Metro plans for F1 are here.)
Steve Sexton, president of Circuit of the Americas, said that planning has been "meticulous and collaborative" – and that ticket-holders should still plan to leave early to make their way to the 330-acre COTA facility in Southeastern Travis County. Shuttles will leave the city beginning at 7a on Friday morning and gates will open at the track at 7:30a. Sexton said 115,000 three-day tickets have been sold, and that 120,000 spectators are expected for the race on Sunday afternoon. "This is a major, major event." Race fans in 50 countries and from all 50 states will be coming to Austin next weekend, he said; more than 60% of tickets were purchased by individuals outside Texas, and more than 15% were purchased by fans outside the U.S. In all, the city estimates that 300,000 people will descend on Austin next weekend.
Thanks to strategic planning efforts, officials said they believe they've got a grip on both traffic and public safety. The weather, however, is out of their hands. Indeed, Hemby says he's praying for a dry cold-front, instead of the kind of dense fog that descended over the county Nov. 3, the morning of the Formula Run footrace, the first official track event, which snarled traffic headed out to COTA that morning.
Nonetheless, city and county officials appeared confident that their coordinated efforts will make for a smooth-running and safe race weekend. "I'm smiling because I'm ready," Acevedo said, "And I think our folks are ready."
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