Standing in the construction site formerly known as Waterloo Park, you can get a sense for the enormity of a project to tunnel underneath downtown. It’s the northern entrance to the Waller Creek Tunnel, which is designed to prevent the usually slow-moving stream from flooding in a storm. When complete, it will be 30 feet round – nearly big enough to fit two trains.
Gary Jackson, the city’s public works project manager, says that the Waller Creek Tunnel is nearly identical to what would be built for a subway tunnel. In fact, Austin’s foundation rock is the perfect material for digging. The Austin Chalk, as it’s called, is a native limestone that cuts easily underground but is strong enough to support buildings above.
The Waller Creek project is digging up an old question: Why not a subway for Austin?That thought was on the top of Jude Galligan’s mind after he saw the inside of the tunnel. As a member of the Downtown Commission, Galligan was invited by Council Member Chris Riley to take an underground tour, and he documented the experience in a video on his blog.
“During the tour, I overheard discussions of people saying, why don’t we have subways in Austin?” Galligan told me. “For a lot of us who have been following transportation, that’s a decade or two decade old discussion of why don’t we. Well, we don’t, because everybody believes it’s prohibitively expensive.”
Galligan isn’t convinced by that argument. He concedes that subway is more expensive than other transportation options on the table, but the Waller Creek Tunnel has come in around $147 million. “I thought what was really interesting was, a tunnel that size or a little larger could hold two tracks going two directions, for not much more.”
Galligan likes the idea of a subway running beneath downtown, connecting I-35 to Sixth and Lamar. That’s a slightly shorter tunnel than Waller Creek, and the construction would be more complicated.
“It gets complicated, you have to build out the tunnel, and ventilate it, and create access. But the idea we can’t build a mile or couple miles of subterranean transit because it’s going to cost billions of dollars, is wrong,” he said. “Don’t fool the public into thinking that it’s such a ginormous undertaking that it will never happen.”
But a subway system – or even a mile or so of underground rail – has not been on the table in Austin. Even before Austin had a car-centric city, it relied on a street-level system. Streetcars traveled along tracks in the road to connect people in neighborhoods like Travis Heights and Hyde Park to downtown. But those tracks were abandoned and paved over in the 50s in favor of autos.
The city’s efforts to start a new era of urban rail have so far materialized in the commuter Red Line, and an evolving map of future light rail lines.
So, will a subway ever happen? I asked Rob Spillar, the director of the Austin Transportation Department.
Spillar said that the city has been getting serious about investing in rail. Early on, they looked into subway, and came up with a lot of arguments against it.
“One of the things that we have to acknowledge is that we live in a post 9/11 environment. And so safety and security become a major issue,” said Spillar. “When you think about going into a tunnel, its not like Waller Creek that’s being dug right now. You have to think about how to protect life, and get people out of the tunnel if there’s an issue. The fire codes are very stringent now. That increases the physical envelope of what an underground system might look like. That obviously adds cost.”
In other words, a subway station creates more liability for the city when it comes to safety than a station at street level. And then there’s the topic of cost.
“When you think about cost, you have to think about how you might fund something like this,” Spillar said. “It used that areas could count on the federal government for paying 80 percent of the cost. Now you have to pay most of it locally. The best you can do is 50 percent. That makes you think about how efficiently we can use local dollars to get the most transit system we can get.”
Spillar said that makes a surface-level rail system the obvious choice.
Curtis Morgan, a program manager at Texas A & M Transportation Institute, puts it this way: A normal light rail system costs about 75 million dollars per mile. “If you have put it up in the air to provide right of way for it, it would probably be twice the cost. And an underground treatment would be five times the cost of what it would be to do it on the ground.”
Basically, the only reason to go underground in the West is when the city can’t get right of way or has to avoid other infrastructure. Dallas’ DART system is the only urban rail system in the Southwest that can claim a subway station. A three and a half mile section of rail runs underneath the North Central Expressway, in order to avoid the right of way conflicts that would come with going through existing neighborhoods. With urban rail projects dating back two decades, Dallas is ahead of the curve in Texas. But Houston’s getting onboard too, according to one of the city’s recent surveys.
According to Spillar, for the first time ever, Houston residents said they wanted more rail over more roads. Spillar worries that Austin will fall behind other cities if it doesn’t make major investments in rail.
But will we ever see a subway? Never say never. But at this point in time, the only way you’ll see a train disappearing underground is if it absolutely has to.