Austin to OK $1.7 million for Waller Creek Tunnel Project work

Waller Creek Tunnel project. (Waller Creek Conservancy Photo/Jim Innes)
Waller Creek Tunnel project. (Waller Creek Conservancy Photo/Jim Innes)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The city of Austin is set to approve spending $1.7 million Thursday on the Waller Creek Tunnel Project to remove water and debris and allow for surveying of the tunnel this month.

Though the $1.7 million is necessary to complete the project, Austin Watershed Department spokesperson Lynne Lightsey said its not part of the construction cost.

“The dewatering project is a long planned maintenance activity (since FY13) that just happened to occur during a time when it also benefits critical project delivery items such as the commissioning, completing, and accepting the tunnel,” Lightsey said. “We are merely taking advantage of planned maintenance to accomplish a bit more.”

But while the city officially may not be tacking the $1.7 million onto the project’s steadily ballooning total price tag (nearly $163 million), a memo from the Watershed Department’s chief says the procedure is critical to the tunnel’s completion.

“As a contract necessary for the completion of this major urban flood control project, the Dewatering Project constitutes a procurement necessary to preserve and protect the public health and safety of the residents of Austin and, accordingly, is exempt from the requirements of bidding,” according to Joseph Pantalion’s memo to City Council regarding the agenda item.

“The taxpayers don’t care which pot of money it’s coming out of. Ultimately, it’s coming out of their pockets one way or the other.”

City Council Member Ellen Troxclair said the Waller Creek Tunnel Project seems like the project that “never ends.” The huge costs already incurred by the city put pressure on Council to approve this type of project.

“When you look at the details, the [city’s] response is, ‘Well, it’s out of a different pot of money this time,’ or, ‘If you don’t do this then everything we’ve spent so far is in vain because we can’t complete the project,’” Troxclair said. “It puts the Council in a really untenable situation.”

The Waller Creek Tunnel Project will remove 28 acres of land in eastern downtown from the 100-year floodplain and allow for development on that land. The tunnel diverts water from the creek to underground tunnels that empty into Lady Bird Lake.

Troxclair said the project will be a valuable asset to the city and an important project, but “not with an unlimited price tag and unlimited time frame.”

“The taxpayers don’t care which pot of money it’s coming out of. Ultimately, it’s coming out of their pockets one way or the other,” she said.

The Dewatering Project includes inspecting the tunnel’s condition, removing sediment and allowing for additional surveying to support Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain maps.

If the city can’t get the survey data, it could “significantly delay the issuance of amended FEMA floodplain maps,” according to city documents.

The modified FEMA floodplain maps will allow development in the current Waller Creek floodplain, according to a city staff recommendation for Council action.

City Council is being asked to approve a contract with National Power Rodding Corp. The Watershed Department’s request for proposals for the Dewatering Project last November failed to yield a single response.

February weather offers a limited dry period to conduct the operation.

Money for the dewatering project would come from Watershed Protection Department certificates of obligation that were previously authorized by City Council, according to an expense analysis.

Certificates of obligation typically do not require voter approval.

Escalating costs

The cost of the Waller Creek Tunnel Project has escalated incrementally for years.

Funds for the project come from a complicated blend of bonds, hotel occupancy taxes and funds from a tax increment financing reinvestment zone.

Voters originally approved $25 million in general obligation bonds for the tunnel in 1998, to be paid repaid with hotel occupancy taxes. The $25 million estimate was based on a 1996 engineering study. After voters passed the bonds, the city conducted more engineering studies in 1999 and 2001 and found the project would cost far more than $25 million. Several methods of funding were then analyzed between 2001 and 2007, according to city records.

In 2008, City Council moved forward with a Waller Creek Tunnel Project Plan and a Reinvestment Zone Financing Plan.

The city pegged the total cost for the tunnel, including studies, design work and multi-year construction contracts, at $149.8 million, city records state.

In 2015, City Council moved forward with an additional $5.6 million in funding for the project. Then the city OK’d another $7.5 million in 2016.

The total cost for the project, as of mid 2016, was $162.9 million.

The project has been hit by “unforeseen conditions, design discrepancies and field adjustments,” according to city records.

The most notable fumble: the original design of a portion of the tunnel obscured a protected sightline of the Texas Capitol. Engineers, the city and designers missed the flaw, and part of the tunnel had to be rebuilt.

“The longer this project draw out, the more money it’s going to cost everybody,” Troxclair said. “At some point, we really have to put our foot down and wrap it up as quickly as possible, so that it doesn’t drag out for several years to come.”

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