Take a short drive through Austin and you’ll see some sites that look a little too familiar.
The unfinished construction on MoPac Boulevard. Crews still working on the new Central Library and on the Waller Creek tunnel project. And an empty utility building on Lady Bird Lake that still isn’t the public space it promised to be.
Why aren’t these projects done yet? Here’s where things stand:
MoPac (Loop 1) toll lanes
The MoPac project, first proposed a decade ago, kicked off in early 2013 with what appeared to be fabulous news. One of the three finalists to design and build the additional toll lane on each side of MoPac, north of Lady Bird Lake, offered to do the job for about $33 million less than officials expected to pay.
The $136.6 million bid by CH2M, a huge international design and construction firm based in Colorado, also promised to wrap up a month earlier than anticipated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the agency overseeing the toll lane project.
As commuters know all too well, none of that went according to plan.
CH2M ran into slowdowns from bad weather, a revolving door of project and construction managers, and delays moving a city water main. Perhaps the biggest setback was the area’s harder-than-expected bedrock, which led to an eight-month delay in drilling the drainage tunnels needed to prevent rainwater from pooling on low parts of the road.
The new toll lanes were originally slated to open in September 2015. The northern half of the northbound toll lane opened in October, more than a year late. The rest of that lane, and the entire southbound lane, are now tentatively slated to open in September.
Then the mobility authority and CH2M will sort out whether the contractor deserves more money for unforeseen cost overruns — or less money for failing to complete the project on time.
The new Central Library
Austin’s new Central Library, under construction for more than four years on Cesar Chavez Street downtown, has seen its opening date repeatedly pushed back as its budget has ticked up to $125 million from the $120 million originally approved by the City Council.
The new 200,000-square-foot library is more than double the size of the one it’s replacing at Eighth and Guadalupe streets, and it will include a cooking demonstration space; a “technology petting zoo,” where people can try out new tech devices; solar panels; an event center; and a restaurant.
First, the library was set to open last November, then this May, then sometime this fall. Now, staff members expect to work hard to get it open this year.
“We’re probably going to have to work some insane hours and that’s OK. We will,” said John Gillum, facilities process manager for Austin libraries. “We’ll condense our part of the project to account for the contractor taking longer.”
Staff members hoped to have six months from the building’s substantial completion to get furniture moved in, books moved and purchased, more staff hired and trained, and the restaurant up and running. But the new library failed various safety inspections, Gillum said, delaying the timeline by months.
Now, most of those inspections have been passed, save an elevator inspection that’s waiting on relocation of the elevator service rooms. The building should be substantially complete in early August, Gillum said, and some furniture might be able to be moved in before that, in July.
Waller Creek tunnel
This could be the year — with decent luck will be the year — to close the book on the Waller Creek tunnel project, said Jorge Morales, assistant director of Austin Public Works.
The flood control project to lift 28 acres on the eastern side of downtown out of the flood plain involves an intake facility at Waterloo Park to divert water through a large underground tunnel with two other inlets into Lady Bird Lake.
The scope and cost of the project has spiraled from $25 million when voters first approved it in 1998, to $68.3 million when the city asked Travis County for funding help in 2006, to $150 million when officials learned the design would block a protected view of the Capitol in 2014, to $163.1 million in 2016, when the city added funding to cover design flaws.
The American-Statesman first broke the story in May 2014 that the half-built intake facility at Waterloo Park would infringe on a state-mandated Capitol view corridor. That forced a project redesign that involved building the facility to be slanted, Morales said.
The main tunnel and its outlet into the lake have been complete for a couple of years, and helped divert water during 2015 flooding. But some damage to the system has required warranty repairs, Morales said, which are underway. Meanwhile, crews are nearing the end of their work inside the Waterloo Park building and the Fourth and Eighth Street inlets, including installing equipment to rake out flood debris.
“We’re in the final stages for real this time,” Morales said. “Without weather delays, we’re projected to finish all components this year.”
Seaholm intake facility
This old concrete building on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake, which served as the pump house for the nearby Seaholm Power Plant that was shut down nearly three decades ago, has everything but a purpose.
“It’s on the water, it’s downtown, it’s on the trail, and it’s on a 3.5-acre piece of parkland. It needs to be a space the public uses,” Colin Wallis, executive director of the Austin Parks Foundation, recently told the Statesman. But it’s taking years for that vision to come into focus.
A design competition in 2013 produced three finalists’ visions for remaking the graffiti-peppered building into an event space, possibly with kayak rentals, floating food trucks or a farm-to-table restaurant. Then the city hit the reset button and solicited a new round of proposals, asking the public in 2015 to choose between two new designs for event spaces.
City officials got as far as recommending Stratus Properties Inc.’s proposal, which included a cylindrical staircase, rooftop garden and direct access to the lake. Then they hit the reset button again in early 2016, after historic preservation advocates raised concerns about the design significantly altering the structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a historic district encompassing the old Seaholm Power Plant.
The visioning process started anew this May with the Austin Parks Foundation and the Trail Foundation hiring an architectural firm to develop a new proposal for the site to provide “public use and recreation,” according to the project website. Officials expect the planning phase to wrap up this fall.
It’s too early to say what the budget or timeline might look like, but if the City Council ultimately signs off on a plan, the project website says, “work can begin in the near future and be built out in the coming years.”