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Experts discuss possible environmental challenges, concerns with tunnels planned for Central Texas

As more people are moving to Central Texas, tunnels are now being looked at as another option for transportation.

AUSTIN, Texas — With more and more people moving to the area, underground tunnels are being discussed for the future of transportation in Central Texas. 

Although this may help with traffic, experts say there are a lot of environmental factors that will need to be considered because of Austin's unique geological makeup.

"Edwards is a karstic aquifer that has preferential flow paths, often along joints or fractures that have a linear characteristic to them,” said Dr. Joe Yelderman, a hydrogeologist and the chair of the Baylor geosciences department.

Dr. Yelderman said although we know a lot about the Edwards aquifer and surrounding areas, there is still a lot we don't know, which could present challenges for companies looking to build tunnels for transportation.

"You may run into a cave or a flow system that you didn't know about,” explained Dr. Yelderman. “So, it's really difficult to predict exactly what the impacts are before you do it."

Elon Musk’s The Boring Company is in talks for tunnel projects here in Central Texas and the City of Austin's Project Connect is also planning tunnels for its light rail system.

The Project Connect Orange Line is planned to go under Lady Bird Lake.

Regarding environmental considerations, Project Connect sent KVUE a statement that said, in part: 

"As for the Orange Line, the tunnel will run approximately 30 to 40 feet below Lady Bird Lake, limiting any impact to the lake. The tunneled portions are not located over the Edwards Aquifer and during geotechnical investigation, no karst Edwards Limestone was encountered."

You can read the full statement at the end of this article. 

When it comes to the potential for The Boring Company tunnels, Dr. Robert Mace, who is the executive director at the Meadows Center at Texas State University, said one thing to note is that the Edwards Aquifer is predominately on the west side of the city.

"You know, if Elon is thinking of a tunnel from the factory to the airport or a factory to some party pad downtown, their probably not going to have to worry about the Edwards aquifer,” said Dr. Mace.

Both experts say these tunnels can be done effectively, but it is crucial these environmental factors are deeply considered.

"In the Austin area, there is groundwater flowing through these rocks,” said Mace. “So, you need to take a look at any potential contaminants that may be in existence or could be exposed to the water."

Here is the full statement from Project Connect:

“The Central Texas community is passionate about environment and sustainable practices, and so is the Project Connect team. It is one of our core values of the program. Project Connect aims to bridge initiatives addressing equity, sustainability and innovation by implementing a transit program that will include new rail systems, underground stations, electrification of the transit system and more. In September of last year, CapMetro purchased one of the largest electric vehicles procurements to date, fulfilling another milestone for Project Connect. As for the Orange Line, the tunnel will run approximately 30 to 40 feet below Lady Bird Lake, limiting any impact to the lake. The tunneled portions are not located over the Edwards Aquifer and during geotechnical investigation, no karst Edwards Limestone was encountered. The Orange Line's environmental benefits and impacts will also be further evaluated under the formal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, which acts as an additional lens for approval and fulfills the necessary requirements to receive federal funds for the project. Protecting and conserving natural resources is a priority for the Project Connect program and the implementation of the program will be crucial to helping our environment, as public transit is one of the most important ways our community can mitigate climate change and air quality impacts.”

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