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Bowie underpass project derailed

Thursday, August 19, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano

After two decades of planning, negotiations to construct the Bowie underpass have come to a halt.

The project at Third and Bowie streets is part of the 2001 Seaholm District Master Plan. It would have provided a link between the Pfluger Street bridge and the Market District, giving bicycles and pedestrians a path under the railroad tracks and off of Walter Seaholm Drive.

According to an Aug. 17 memo from Economic Development Director Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, city staffers have terminated negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad to develop the crossing. 

“UPRR’s final proposed terms for the agreement posed significant legal and financial obstacles to the city which led negotiating team department directors to ultimately terminate the pursuit of Bowie underpass and to develop recommendations for (City Council) consideration to reallocate the remaining $6.6 million in project funding,” Holt-Rabb wrote.

A spokesperson for the Economic Development Department told the Austin Monitor that since the city and Union Pacific were unable to reach terms both found acceptable, negotiations had stopped and both parties “have begun contract and project close-out procedures.”

The spokesperson explained that Union Pacific “believed the project posed high risk to their operations and was not in their business interest. Therefore, UPRR insisted that the city assume an unacceptable amount of risk and costs related to the project.” He said those risks included a refusal to cap project costs or reimburse more than $1 million in real estate fees, should UPRR prevent the project from moving forward.

The underpass, which has been in the works for 20 years, has stalled out a number of times. By 2006, City Council had approved the alignment and design engineer for the project. Ten years later, in 2016, engineering plans were “largely completed,” according to the memo. But, “between 2015 and 2019 negotiations on legal terms proceeded intermittently due to changes in personnel and new demands from UPRR that exceeded city staff’s spending authority.” Then, in 2020, negotiations were renewed. 

The underpass is part of the Cypress and Shoal Creek Vision Plan, which came out of a partnership between the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Shoal Creek Conservancy. In an email to the Monitor, Shoal Creek Conservancy Executive Director Ivey Kaiser explained that the underpass is one of the major capital improvements called for in the Cypress and Shoal Creek Public Space Strategy, a “culmination of proposed, community-driven, public space improvements that includes the addition of the Bowie Street underpass, which has been a community-favored project since our Shoal Creek Trail Plan stakeholder discussions in 2017 and earlier.”

Though cost estimates for the project have varied over the years, the most recent was $4.4 million, which was to be paid through a tax increment financing district that was formed in 2008 for the Seaholm redevelopment. When negotiations began anew, staffers were authorized to spend up to $2.2 million. Though $6.6 million in funding is available for the project, using more money would require further City Council action.

According to Holt-Rabb’s memo, staff members are currently working on recommendations for reallocating the $6.6 million once intended for the underpass. Instead, she notes, projects identified in the Urban Trails Plan, Bicycle Plan and Shoal Creek Vision to Action Plan will take precedence. 

This photo was made available under a Creative Commons license.

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