I first talked to Frances Allen about her quest for sound walls on MoPac Boulevard in 2005. Even then, I was 15 years late on the story.
And, as it turns out, more than 10 years early.
“I hoped I would live long enough to see them,” said Allen, a retired home economics teacher with an infectious habit of chuckling at life’s foibles. She cheerfully volunteered that she is “82 and a half,” noting that after age 80 people start counting the half years again like you do with an infant or a toddler.
As Allen and I sat in her backyard on Westfield Drive last week talking about her long journey through the highway bureaucracy, the din of passing cars on North MoPac about 25 yards west of us was just low enough that conversation was possible. Then a freight train rumbled by.
“Here we go,” she said, laughing again of course. “Now, that’s real noise.”
She should know. Because, you see, as it turns out, Allen hasn’t lived quite long enough to see a sound wall in her backyard. Not yet.
Even though the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and CH2M, its general contractor on the MoPac toll lane project, have completed 3.3 miles of sound walls on the project and have 3.2 miles more under construction (and 0.3 miles yet to begin), the 10-foot-high wall set for Allen’s neighborhood north of West 45th Street has not yet arisen. The concrete foundations for the precast concrete wall are there in 18.5-foot intervals just beyond her six-foot-tall wooden fence, but that’s it at this point.
And on the several days I was there or passed by on the highway last week, there was no construction activity on the wall. So Allen’s wait continues.
“Even though we’re three years into this project, people come up to me all the time and say, ‘How do you like your sound wall?’” she said. “And I say, ‘I still don’t have one.’ And it’s really an embarrassment since I worked on this for 25 years. And I hope they don’t run out of time, money and energy before they get to my wall.”
I should point out that Allen isn’t really mad about all this, even though before the MoPac project began, she said, officials with the mobility authority told her that her wall would be in the first batch built. She understands that construction sequencing is a mercurial thing, especially on a complicated, 11-mile-long project that has faced a series of delays and management challenges.
The mobility authority, when I asked about it, said the general approach on the toll lane project has been to begin sound wall construction in a given area only after all the added pavement for that stretch has been laid down. Allen’s home sits in the middle section of the corridor, an area that was delayed for a long time by a dispute with the city of Austin over moving a water main.
And the contractor focused on both the north end of the project, where there is plenty of right of way and work was easiest (and where there will be almost no sound walls), and the south end, the most complex, time-consuming section. The center part was more or less the stepchild, and it’ll be the last section completed.
Allen was oblivious to all of this back in the early 1990s, when she moved back to Westfield after living elsewhere in Austin for about a decade. Her family had owned a home about a block north on Westfield, one also backing up to MoPac, since 1953, the year she graduated from Austin High. When her mother died in 1962, she and her family moved back into that family home.
So she was living there in the early ’70s when MoPac was built. The project shaved 10 feet off the backyard of that home because the Texas Highway Department (as it was known then) needed more than just the Union Pacific right of way to build three lanes on each side of the railroad track.
Traffic was very light on MoPac in the early years, she said, and only about five freight trains a day came by. So the noise wasn’t much back then. She moved away. When she came back to the neighborhood — to her current home — after retiring from teaching at Reagan High, things had changed.
“I said, ‘What is that noise in my backyard?’” Allen said. She called what was by then the Texas Department of Transportation and, “with my naive ways,” asked them to plant bushes behind her 6-foot-tall, wood-slat fence to suppress the racket.
“And they said, ‘Bushes are not going to do it,’” Allen said. “And so began the long journey of trying to get sound walls.”
She and others formed a coalition of 14 neighborhoods along the highway to push for construction of the walls. And for a time, around the turn of the century, it appeared that TxDOT had a $2 million federal grant to build some. But then her group was told that federal law allowed such spending only when a road was being expanded. And at that point, plans to widen MoPac were in spinning-wheel mode.
Allen resigned herself to the idea that it might never happen. Along the way, she installed a pretty garden in her front yard, complete with dainty lawn furniture. She let her one-story house serve as a de facto sound wall, in other words.
Then TxDOT came up with the toll lane expansion project, assigning it around 2010 to the mobility authority to build and operate. Analysis for sound walls became not just a choice, but a requirement under federal law. Her neighborhood, along with several others along the corridor, qualified for the walls.
She served on an “aesthetics committee” at one point, which weighed in on the design and the tan-and-white color scheme (technically, “antique white” and “basket beige” with rust-colored “tanbark” accents). The concrete walls, 5 to 7 inches thick, will be between 8 and 22 feet high, depending on the topography. The project’s $136 million construction price includes $13.8 million for seven miles of sound walls, covering about a third of the project’s frontage.
Allen was at the groundbreaking in October 2013 for a project that was supposed to be done by September 2015. Peace and quiet, or something like it, seemed to be just around the corner. Well, not so much.
But, soon. Those wall foundations are in place. And officials now predict that the entire project should be done by the spring.
Allen said that officials have told her the walls will lower the sound by at least 10 decibels (from about 60 now on a regular basis and 90 from the trains). Oddly enough, she said, that will matter most not at rush hour, when the cars are backed up and “there’s no whooshing of cars going by,” but when traffic is actually moving.
And when one of what is now about 30 daily trains pass by.
When the wall is up, she said, “If I’m up to it, I might have a party and have everyone sign it.”
Until then, good health, Ms. Allen. And keep some earplugs handy.