By Constable Bruce Elfant
The announcement last May by state and local leaders that Formula One (F1) racing would be coming to Austin in 2012 was greeted by surprise and excitement. Supporters say that F1 racing will employ 1,500 construction workers and 1,200 full time employees and will generate about $300 million for the Austin Area. State Comptroller Susan Combs who committed $250 million (over 10 years) of state funds to support the project said that local governments would be reimbursed for costs incurred with hosting F1 events.
Hopefully Ms. Combs and other F1 backers are right about the benefits of F1 but when she described it as a “done deal” no work had been done to address water, energy, traffic or environmental considerations that would be necessary to support the F1 facility. When F1 officials finally contacted Travis County officials five months after their announcement they still did not know what infrastructure would be needed, how much it would cost or if taxpayers would be reimbursed for all costs associated with this project.
There is no doubt that the prospect of Formula One racing coming to Austin for many is exciting and could well be a financial boon for our community. But local officials have a responsibility to ensure that projects of this nature are fully vetted before they are approved. Setting aside the issue of whether tax dollars should be spent to help subsidize private ventures, public money should not be committed to this (or any) project before costs, benefits and impacts are fully understood.
Would this project result in any adverse environmental impacts including, habitat, air and water? There has been no environmental impact study for this project and Travis County is perilously close to running afoul of air pollution standards which would result in more stringent restrictions and higher costs. What would be the cost of road upgrades to ensure public safety and a reasonable traffic flow to and from the event? Following a visit to the Texas Motor Speedway, Travis County officials estimated that with current roads it would take about 12 hours for fans to get to and then out of the F1 race track grounds. Would tax revenues exceed the costs or adverse impacts of the F1 facility? No independent analysis has yet been conducted. Will F1 officials commit to Austin for a set number of years or could they pull up stakes and leave after just a few years like they did in Indianapolis, Indiana? And why did city officials In Jersey City, NJ turn down the opportunity for F1 racing to come to their city?
In their zeal to bring F1 racing to Austin, promoters and government officials put the cart before the horse by their failure to bring the relevant public and private partners together to address these issues before announcing that the F1 race track would be built. A thorough and independent review of the F1 proposal would either serve to expose shortcomings that could render it inappropriate for our community or to validate and improve upon what could be an exciting opportunity to bring Formula One racing to Austin. Travis County taxpayers deserve to know that the F1 project is a good deal before it becomes a done deal.