How Austin’s increase in tourism demands better transportation options
By Anna Daugherty
Flying or driving, from near or far, people are coming to see what all the excitement is about in Austin. The increasing attention has the city racing to keep pace.
Fodor’s listed Austin as one of the top ten places to travel in 2012. That same year, TripAdvisor ranked Austin as second in a list of the top 15 rising vacation destinations in America. As interest in the city grows, so does the demand for quality transportation.
Jason Zielinski, public information specialist at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, said passenger traffic at the airport has increased for four years in a row. The airport now has several construction projects going on to be able to handle the current and the future demand.
“As Austin and central Texas continue to grow, so does the airport,” Zielinski said. “We have to increase our infrastructure, improve it, and stay ahead of the game. In 2008 we set a record with 9 million passengers, and at that point we started to look forward at possibly doing a lot of the construction projects we’re doing currently.”
Construction projects at Austin-Bergstrom include expanding the current terminal, adding a new terminal, and adding a new car rental facility and parking lot. The airport also recently added a non-stop flight to London on British Airways – the airport’s first trans-Atlantic flight.
“All of our expansion and construction is dependent on passenger traffic,” Zielinski said. “We just hit the 10 million (passengers) mark for the first time. And the airport infrastructure, when it was first built, the terminal was predicted to be able to handle about 11 million passengers a year.”
Predictions by the airport’s Department of Aviation are based on a standard 3 percent to 4 percent increase in passenger traffic every year. The current passenger forecast for the airport is to reach 11.5 million passengers by the year 2017 and 13.1 million by 2023.
The airport is mostly self-sustaining, according to Zielinski. The funding for maintenance and construction comes from money spent at the airport. Some construction projects receive additional aid from the Federal Aviation Administration. None of the airport’s budget comes from city citizens’ taxes.
Airport travel is not the only concern for the growing city. While flying makes up 19.6 percent of transportation, the other 80 percent is automobile travel. The increase in vehicle travel has been a challenge for Austin government and citizens facing crammed streets and highways.
Chris Bishop, public information officer for the Texas Department of Transportation, said Interstate 35 is the most heavily traveled roadway in Texas, all the way from the north side of Dallas down through Laredo. He also said this area is one of the most densely populated in the state.
“The goal is to find what’s going to work best for I-35 as a transportation corridor, not just to handle any one event but to handle all the demands that are put on it to allow people to move safely and efficiently,” Bishop said. “It’s not just because we have Formula 1 that we have to do this, or we can’t do that. At some point, the work just has to get done.”
Bishop said they do take special events, like Formula 1 races or South by Southwest, into consideration when planning work on highways in Austin.
“That’s all part of what makes Austin the popular place that it is and obviously the heavily traveled and trafficked place that it is,” Bishop said.
The challenges of growing population and tourism are not without their rewards though, according to Shilpa Bakre, senior communications manager at the Austin Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.
“Locally, travel supports an estimated 50,000 jobs and pumps more than $6 billion into Austin’s economy,” Bakre said. “It’s a tremendous economic impact and benefit for the city.”
Bakre said tourists love to visit the city for its authentic experience that can be very different than in other cities. She said the city has more than 250 live music venues to support its nickname as “the live music capital of the world,” but there are other important aspects of the city as well.
“We’ve obviously got an incredibly burgeoning food scene, great festivals, great outdoors, and 300 days of sunshine a year,” Bakre said. “There are a lot of things that attract both leisure and business travelers to the city year-round.”
Bakre said every growing city faces challenges, much like “growing pains” as it struggles to find its own identity as a large city. She said she hopes that Austin will continue to maintain the authenticity it has because of the people who live here.