AUSTIN (KXAN) — The forecast is clear on this crisp March day.
Gail Montgomery and her husband, Victor Eberly, check it constantly, praying the next rain storm will be quick.
“We’re always worried when we hear rain, we all need rain, but we always have that angst feeling, ‘how much is it going to be,'” said Eberly.
“Always high anxiety,” chimed in Montgomery.
The couple has lived at their home in the Whispering Valley neighborhood in northwest Austin for more than 40 years.
They’re across the street from a tributary and explained their home has flooded four times, each time costing between $2,400 to 3,500 to clean up.
“It looks like a lake from inside our living room to all the way across that you can see,” described Eberly.
They have a drill: lay down plastic outside and line the outside of the house with sandbags.
“Vic starts lifting things up in the garage,” explained Montgomery. “I start lifting things up in the living room.”
The last time their home flooded was in 2016, the worst one they said when six and a half inches of water crept inside.
The City of Austin said a small culvert opening under a railroad crossing is the main cause of flooding.
“It’s kind of the choking point right now, which causes backup of water upstream,” explained Rupali Sabnis, supervising engineer with the city’s Watershed Protection Department. “Four inches is all it needs to backup the water upstream of that.”
Homeowners said years ago, Union Pacific Railroad added big rocks on the side of the tracks, but it made the flooding worse.
“The trouble is for years it flooded, but it would come right up to our front door there, and then it would disappear — you could watch it and see — because the railroad track would wash out,” explained Eberly. “Then the railroad came out and they added more rocks on this side of the tracks, big boulders, then we got about three inches in the house.”
He said a few years later more rocks were added, “put boulders on the other side, because it washed out again — that time it’s when we got six and a half inches.”
The City has been working with the railroad to expand the crossing and build a new bridge with a bigger opening so more water can flow through.
Before Union Pacific does anything, the City of Austin has to do its part. It’s designing what’s called a “flood bench” near the crossing.
It will be an open area beside the creek to help hold floodwaters until it passes beneath the new bridge. The estimated cost is between $3-4 million.
Relief still years away
“This is a really important project for us to provide flood relief to residents in that area,” said Sabnis. “We are still working on the agreement with Union Pacific, and we are anticipating to have this agreement in place by the end of this year. And the actual construction of the project depends on when this agreement will be in place.”
Just last month, other homeowners shared frustrations during a public meeting about the project.
“I heard agreement 30 years ago. You need to have a date in place that they’re actually going to do it and actually going to complete it,” said one homeowner during the Zoom meeting.
The city said the design of the flood bench is underway, and construction could start in the summer – next year.
The city explained those involved have been actively seeking an agreement with Union Pacific to replace the culvert with a larger one since 2014.
“We will do whatever is in our control to move this project as quickly as we can and to its completion,” said Sabnis. “We are working diligently with Union Pacific on the agreement.”
Union Pacific turned down an on-camera interview with KXAN investigators.
“We have had numerous discussions with the city on this project. The construction of the bridge cannot start until the city’s flood control project is substantially completed,” said Robynn Tysver with Union Pacific.
Tysver added they don’t give out cost numbers when asked about the price tag of the new bridge.
This project is also impacting another nearby neighborhood, West Cow Path, which lacks drainage infrastructure to help with flooding. The area drains to the creek upstream of Whispering Valley.
The city said the railroad crossing has to be upgraded first before improvements can be made in that area.
‘We’ve suffered long enough’
“We need it to be expediated. We’ve suffered long enough,” said Montgomery. “As we’re getting older we’re like, what are we going to do.”
Montgomery and Eberly said they’ve contacted the city and railroad for years pushing for solutions and have been frustrated it’s taken so long to provide relief.
“It’s not easy to sling those sandbags around anymore. It’s pretty tough,” said Eberly.
Montgomery agreed adding, “Something has got to happen. We shouldn’t have to live this way.”
Some homeowners in the neighborhood not impacted by flooding explained the expanded bridge could also mean access to the greenbelt nearby.
The city said flooding concerns is the priority, and there will be talks later on in the process about access to the greenbelt.