The $6 million tunnel eventually got unanimous support on the council, though it seemed the issue would deadlock 3-3 with member Ronit Bryant absent. Member Nick Galiotto and Mayor Tom Means were not in support at first, and member Matt Pear was the surprise swing vote.
It is hoped the tunnel will provide safe crossing to the San Antonio train station for the Monta Loma and Mayfield neighborhoods, as 1,000 residents are expected to inhabit the new Mayfield homes. Supporters said it would encourage walking and bicycling to San Antonio Center and make the housing project qualify as "smart growth."
A $150,000 feasibility study showed that the tunnel was "physically and technically" feasible.
But not everyone at Tuesday night's meeting thought it was a great idea.
"Cost should have been a critical piece of criteria," said Jo Price of Toll Brothers, which is being asked to pay for the tunnel. She added that the tunnel would not be built "in a reasonable amount of time."
Council member Jac Siegel said $6 million was a small price to pay for a housing development worth over $300 million when finished.
"What's a life worth?" Siegel asked, commenting on the safety of the current Central Expressway crosswalk.
Records going back to 1986 show one fatality has occurred at the crosswalk, in 2001, said traffic engineer Mike Vroman.
"I witnessed the 2001 fatality," said Monta Loma resident Elna Tymes. A car coming down the on-ramp from San Antonio onto Central hit a man on a bicycle.
"He flew up in the air and fell down in a way that nobody survives," Tymes said.
Price argued that not only was the cost "exorbitant" but that residents would be more likely to use the crosswalk. She also said the tunnel could stand in the way of plans to widen the train tracks for high speed rail, an argument that didn't hold water with the council's current transit expert, Vice Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga.
Even tunnel supporters had concerns about crime in the tunnel, especially at night. But with little car traffic at night, said Monta Loma resident Nola Mae McBain, she felt safe using the crosswalk instead.
Council member Laura Macias had city staff show a TV news report on a tunnel in Phoenix, Ariz. that was built after a young woman was killed on a crosswalk in 2004. The tunnel was built with fine artistic detail, and footage showed residents walking back and forth enthusiastically during its opening.
Council member Galiotto, a former police officer, was looking at a police report on two men mugged in the Palo Alto train station tunnel.
"I have to say this has been a difficult issue for me to reach a decision on," he said. "If someone was assaulted in the tunnel we would certainly feel as badly as we would after a traffic accident."
Pear, who is often on the side of housing developers, surprised many by saying he supported the tunnel. As a cyclist who uses the crossing himself, he said the ramp that sends cars onto the expressway from San Antonio Road was "a significant issue." But he did add that he had concerns about the tunnel's cost.
The council eventually approved the tunnel as part of the subdivision map for the project. The tunnel will be 20 feet wide and 125 feet long, with glass brick providing light in the median along with full electric lighting. The council chose the smaller of two designs for an entrance on the Mayfield side, even though it provides less visibility into the tunnel.
"If the tunnel is not built, it's the responsibility of the council to re-look at this whole development," Siegel said. "If we don't build this tunnel now it will be an opportunity lost forever."