AUSTIN (KXAN) — The city of Austin wants $22 million of its money back from the construction company building the Waller Creek Tunnel. City staff is also threatening to retroactively cut payments of more than $40 million because the tunnel doesn’t do what it was intended to do, which is to protect against major flooding. The company, S.J. Louis, filed suit against the city in return.
In 1998, voters originally approved the project for $25 million. Then came 10 years of delays and flaws. Now, the taxpayers have spent $161 million on the project. People downstream have one word for it: boondoggle.
If you have a restaurant on top of a massive tunnel, the last thing you want to hear is it might not be structurally sound.
“Really gross negligence on the part of whoever was building and overseeing the project,” said Aaron Morris, the general manager of Iron Works BBQ.
The restaurant, at the corner of Red River Street and Cesar Chavez Street, has a flood marker from the 1930s posted on the wall when customers walk in. Flooding in this area is an old problem he says everyone thought was fixed. Major building projects are still going up around the corner, hingeing on a completed Waller Creek project. Across the street, the Fairmont Hotel just opened up.
“It almost feels like nobody’s in charge,” said Morris.
The city claims the tunnel is missing rebar and was built with poor quality concrete that won’t stand up to unusually large floods. Morris unloaded his five-figure flood insurance policy when he thought the tunnel was operational. Now, he says he’s buying it again.
“With life and death nature of flash flooding in Central Texas and the city maybe ought to step up and kind of get a little more involved with what’s going on in Waller Creek,” said Morris.
In a public interview Thursday morning with the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Mayor Steve Adler said the Austin City Council didn’t even know there were problems with construction. “Huge concern,” said Adler.
‘It almost feels like nobody’s in charge.’
KXAN reached out to the company S.J. Louis and their lawyers but we haven’t heard back for comment. According to the company’s lawsuit, the city approved their work in 2015 and can’t go back on their payments. This legal fight likely has just begun.
This is not the only problem the Waller Creek project has faced. After more than a decade of planning, construction started in 2011. Additional funds were needed in 2014, when work had to stop on the project after it was discovered it was too tall and blocking the Capitol View Corridor. Somehow that design flaw was missed by both city engineers and the city staff who approved the design. The facility had to be lowered by five feet.