Austin braces for epic traffic snarls as Obama visits during SXSW


President Barack Obama has made seven previous trips to Austin during his years in office, for reasons as lofty as a civil rights summit and as common as political fundraising, sometimes with a side of Central Texas brisket.

But the president has never dropped into town during the cluster of humanity and traffic downtown that is the South by Southwest Festival. His seven-hour visit Friday for a SXSW Interactive discussion on civic involvement in the digital age — followed by Democratic National Committee fundraisers at two locations — has Austin officials talking in apocalyptic terms about what Obama’s motorcade-related stoppages will do to Austin streets.

Their advice to work-a-day Austinites: stay away from the city’s core Friday, at least between about noon and 8 p.m. The city itself will have many of its employees telecommute or take that day off, and the Austin school district will let out students for the day just after noon (and right before the president’s arrival) at 15 schools mostly in Central and South Austin.

“South by Southwest on a normal Friday is a huge traffic challenge,” said Jason Stanford, spokesman for Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “Adding a presidential motorcade turns this into a pretty good reason to work from home.”

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who has held that job since 2007 and thus has dealt with all of Obama’s Austin forays, said the visit and rolling traffic shutdowns (with roads closing before the president passes through and opened shortly thereafter) could be felt all the way from U.S. 183 on the north to Ben White Boulevard on the south.

“Remember, the president moves at 55 mph on empty freeways,” Acevedo said. “Anytime you have a presidential trip, it’s going to screw up traffic.”

(Five days later, first lady Michelle Obama will make a separate trip to Austin for an 11 a.m. speech at South by Southwest.)

As with any presidential trip, the White House and Secret Service have been miserly with details because of security concerns. But at least enough has emerged to give Austin travelers some idea when the president will be on the move — and the rest of us won’t.

Obama will arrive aboard Air Force One at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport just after 1 p.m. Friday. That will mean a shutdown of operations on the airfield — takeoffs and landings, taxiing of aircraft, loading and unloading of baggage — just before the converted Boeing 747 touches down. After the typical meet-and-greets at the bottom of the jetway, Obama and his entourage will take the motorcade out of the airport.

Airport spokesman Jim Halbrook said that process typically lasts 20 to 25 minutes. The airfield springs back to life only after the motorcade is off the property, he said. Flights that might otherwise have landed during that interval, Halbrook said, will either circle or, at the airline’s preference, might take off late from a previous airport to time their arrival after the shutdown.

Obama first stop will be his SXSW appearance at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on West Riverside Drive, where, starting at 2:30 p.m., he will be interviewed onstage by Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief and CEO Evan Smith. The White House hasn’t released a route, but in the past the president has typically used Texas 71 and Interstate 35 to travel between the airport and downtown.

After the interview, Obama’s next stop will be at the Austin Music Hall downtown for a fundraiser set to start about 3:30 p.m., although Obama might arrive later than that. That likely puts South First, Lavaca and West Third streets in the presidential path.

Then comes the leg of Obama’s trip likely to have the most traffic impact: a drive during the heart of the afternoon rush hour. The president will attend yet another fundraiser, this time at a private home in Tarrytown west of Exposition Boulevard. Obama, according to those familiar with the event, likely will arrive about 6 p.m.

Depending on the Secret Service’s preference, that could take him from downtown along West Cesar Chavez Street, or perhaps West 15th Street and Enfield Road.

Stanford, the mayor’s spokesman, said the city will be tweeting out the route in near real-time to help people avoid the jam at @austintexasgov.

When that dinner is over around 7:30 p.m., the president will return to the airport — perhaps on South MoPac Boulevard, Loop 360 and Texas 71 — and take off around 8 p.m. The airfield will again shut down briefly while the president and his party are on the scene.

Far fewer details were available this week on Michelle Obama’s visit next Wednesday. Neither White House or SXSW officials would say where her speech will occur, or if she had other Austin stops planned. Halbrook said the city had never hosted the first lady by herself and thus the protocols weren’t as clear. And Acevedo couldn’t say whether her motorcade would cause rolling shutdowns like the president’s.

“But what they’ve told us is that there is not a full cessation of airfield operations,” Halbrook said.



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