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Plans moving forward to construct Waller Creek tunnel

Monday, April 19, 2010 by John Davidson

The Waller Creek Master Plan, unveiled at a town hall meeting April 7 to spirited discussion of how to pay for it, aims to create a luxurious pedestrian- and bike-friendly greenbelt stretching from Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake.


And although models and maps of what the master plan might someday produce are striking, they are perhaps not quite as striking as the very real plans for the Waller Creek tunnel, a massive subterranean flood diversion channel upon which the future of the Waller Creek District rests.


In fact, plans for a river walk and any other development in the Waller Creek District depend on the tunnel, according to City of Austin Project Manager Gary Jackson. Previous attempts to build trails and other amenities along Waller Creek, such as the existing trail built for the Texas bicentennial, have been undermined by chronic flooding.


“Much of it has been either inundated by flood and debris or actually destroyed in some locations,” he said. “If you go along the creek you’ll see serious bank erosion. Some buildings and utilities are exposed and overhanging the creek. The foundations have been undermined by the erosion.”


The day before the town hall meeting, Jackson briefed the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee on the progress of the first major flood diversion tunnel in Austin history. So far, says Jackson, the project is on schedule and on budget, with the major phase design about 90 percent complete. Bids will go out in the fall and construction is set to begin on the tunnel itself next spring.


Unlike the Waller Creek Master Plan, the tunnel has funding. A tax-increment financing district will pay for what Jackson estimates to be a total cost of about $136 million, about $100 million of which is the construction cost.


According to Jackson, construction will begin between 4th and 5th streets near I-35 and then proceed in both directions—toward Waterloo Park and Lady Bird Lake, respectively. The majority of the tunnel, however, will be underneath Sabine Street, “so it does not run directly under the creek,” he said. In the master plan, Sabine Street is to become a Great Streets-type promenade.


The tunnel, which will be 70 feet underground, will only be visible above ground in a few places: the shaft between 4th and 5th streets, the inlet at Waterloo Park and the outlet at Lady Bird Lake.


Although the tunnel project is still in the design phase, it’s actually made of about a dozen different projects, says Jackson, one of which is to move the City Parks and Recreation Department boat facility on Lady Bird Lake.


The building currently sits on what was determined to be the ideal location for the tunnel outlet, so the city is planning to demolish the building and build a new boat facility a little to the west. There has been considerable discussion about that but no final decision about what organizations or company will use that building. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 17, 2009.)   A handful of smaller projects related to preparation for tunnel construction are slated to begin construction this summer, according to Jackson.

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