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The Light at the Beginning of the Waller Tunnel

Long-awaited Waller Creek Tunnel Project shows a glimmer of light

By Kimberly Reeves, Fri., Nov. 2, 2007

The Light at the Beginning of the Waller Tunnel
Photo by Jana Birchum

The weird mechanics of building the off-again, on-again Waller Creek Tunnel Project could start making sense in the coming months, though the project itself won't see completion until 2014.

The $124 million plan calls for development along Waller Creek beds, pedestrian trails, and a new drainage system. A citizens' advisory committee has set a tentative date of Nov. 17 for a town hall meeting on the milelong tunnel, which will sit almost 70 feet below the creek bed and maintain a constant flow of cycling water.

The tunnel, which will stretch from an inlet at Waterloo Park to an outlet at Lady Bird Lake, is expected to turn what has become a sporadic and brackish drainage ditch into an actual free-flowing water source that will flow at a pace of a "babbling Hill Country brook." That's according to lead contractor Espey Consultants, which last week briefed an assortment of stakeholders.

The final plan for the tunnel won't be presented to council for approval until December 2008. In the interim, a consultant team will be setting the parameters of the project to determine the speed of the water flow and the extent of the drainage – all while protecting critical environmental features along the route, engineer Brian Reis told a citizens' advisory committee. And because the tunnel is primarily a flood-control device, four inlets will be carved out along the route to make sure the proper amount of land is being drained and taken out of the floodplain.

As the tunnel is being designed, the city will bring a consultant onboard to plan the concept of commercial and residential development along the creek banks. A bid for that consultant will go out by the end of this year, with the goal of having a team selected by late next spring.

The tunnel team tentatively has divided the creek into five segments along the route – each with its own personality and context – and the consultant is expected to move that concept forward with plans for the type and scope of desired development along the creek.

At last week's meeting, city planner Michael Knox presented eight projects already in the works along the creek's banks just outside the floodplain. Those range from the Legacy at Town Lake at the foot of Rainey Street to a new indoor-outdoor venue for Stubb's to the renovated Sabine on Fifth condo redevelopment to the Red River Flats. Most of the projects are expected to be completed within a year.

Charlie McCabe, executive director of the Austin Parks Founda­tion, an active stakeholder in the project, outlined the challenges of refurbishing Waller Creek and its disconnected pieces of trail, some of which have been buried by silt in floods, while more visible portions are difficult to walk or ride a bicycle on.

Who's footing the bill for the tunnel work? We are. The cost of the project is being divided between city bonds and a tax-increment finance district co-sponsored by the city and county.

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