Austin residents are having to pay a massive bill for a city project plagued with problems.
Waller Creek, which runs through downtown Austin, was scheduled for improvements to help with flood control, including a mile-long underground tunnel that drains to Lady Bird Lake. The proposed project was approved in 1998 for $25 million.
Now after 20 years of delays and problems, total costs are over $160 million—nearly seven times the original price tag.
Despite the enormous cost and 20-year wait, the tunnel was still built poorly. Substandard concrete, missing structural rebar, and missing tunnel liner are among the numerous construction issues that threaten to hinder flood control performance and decrease the tunnel’s lifespan.
The city recently wrote a letter to its primary builder describing the severity of the problems, calling the project a “patchwork of repairs.” Because of the structural deficiencies, almost 70 percent of the tunnel’s extra capacity, its “freeboard,” is lost.
“The loss of freeboard reduces the primary purpose of the tunnel, flood protection,” the letter said. “The City will never be made whole and is forced to accept a tunnel with a diminished value.”
The city blamed its primary builder, S.J. Louis Construction, for the tunnel flaws and sought a refund of $22 million. The firm countered by suing the city, claiming that Austin cannot claw back money from a contract that they themselves had already marked as completed. The firm also accused the city of failing to provide various information and materials necessary for the project.
“Our position is that all of this, the whole process … was mismanaged by the city,” said Tom Watkins, a lawyer for the firm, “and they’re trying to divert attention away from that.”
The poorly built tunnel is just one of the disasters associated with the project. In 2014, an intake facility at Waterloo Park had to be partially torn down, redesigned, and rebuilt after the structure was found to block sight lines of the state Capitol, which is a violation of city and state policy. The City of Austin apparently did not check if the structure met these “Capitol view corridor” requirements until after the problem occurred.
The continual mistakes, delays, and issues of this project have cost Austin residents $140 million in additional tax dollars. Local families are struggling to keep up with rising taxes, yet the city is negligently handling their hard-earned money.
Will Austin voters elect different leadership to manage their money efficiently and reliably, or will the same trend continue?