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Waller tunnel gets Council go-ahead to start construction

Friday, February 18, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Let the digging begin. Council members approved a series of contract authorizations, ordinances, and amendments to prior agreements on Thursday that will at long last enable work to begin on the Waller Creek Tunnel Project.


According to city documents, the purpose of the Waller Creek Tunnel is to “provide 100-year storm event flood protection with no out-of-bank or roadway flooding for the lower Waller Creek watershed.” The project is expected to reduce the size of the downtown 100-year floodplain by 28 acres, a significant addition to  the amount of developable land area in the watershed.


Watershed Protection Department Deputy Director Joe Pantalion told In Fact Daily after the Council meeting, “We’ve been talking about building this tunnel for 35 years and now we can start digging.” Council approved the current version of the project on March 20, 2008, but there have been several proposals for a tunnel project in the floodplain over the past four decades.


The tunnel will be 26-feet in diameter and stretch nearly a mile, from Waterloo Park to Waller Beach.


Council Member Sheryl Cole has been the Council leader on redevelopment of the Waller area; before her, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley led the charge. In 1998, Mayor (now State Senator) Kirk Watson championed the project.


“The Waller Creek Tunnel Project is a long-term investment in Austin’s future and an opportunity to turn a forgotten, flood-prone creek into a vibrant part of downtown,” Cole said Thursday.  “With flood protection allowing for reduced erosion and hazards, the project is a catalyst for future revitalization.”


At the Council work session on Wednesday Pantalion said that during a flood, downtown can “become a river,” so the Waller Creek Tunnel will help save both lives and the watershed. “We consider (the tunnel) among our highest public safety needs from a watershed protection standpoint,” Pantalion said.


Pantalion also said the tunnel will help prevent creek erosion and improve water quality.


Council also approved an amendment to the project and financing plan of the Waller Creek Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone No. 17, which was created by Council in 2007 to finance the construction of flood control improvements along lower Waller Creek. Among the items updated by that amendment were project design and project cost estimates and the most recent estimates of underlying funding sources that are anticipated to pay for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the tunnel.


Council also authorized execution of a construction contract with SJ Louis Construction of Texas for about $50 million and the negotiation and execution of a professional services agreement for just under $1 million with Kleinfelder Central Inc.


Project Manager Gary Jackson told In Fact Daily that he expects contract negotiations to take about a month and work on the site by May or June.


Developer Perry Lorenz, who owns property in the floodplain, said that the project would do a great deal to improve downtown, despite what critics may say.


“I know that some argue that a particular handful of downtown property developers will do better than anybody else — that may be true,” he said. But, he added, those property owners have been paying taxes on Central Business District land for years and putting up with the problems associated with trying to operate businesses and develop property along a creek that was treated like an open sewer. “So, it’s only fair that they benefit.”


The project, he said, “ will take a hideous open sewer and turn it into a relatively constant level clean water amenity.


With that will come other possibilities, Lorenz said. “I think it’s important to be able to go to a University of Texas basketball game (at the Erwin Center and walk), to the hotels by way of 6th Street, and to go to the university by way of bicycle.”  


Council voted unanimously in favor of all the Waller Tunnel-related items. Construction is expected to take last at least four years.

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