From the archive: Waiting and waiting for a softer MoPac

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Dec. 5, 2005.

I’m not recommending this. But if you were to pull your car over on MoPac Boulevard north of 45th Street and just listen, you’d have an unsavory feast for the ears:

The whoosh of cars creating and filling vacuums as they pass by, the whine of tires on pavement, the occasional roar of an 18-wheeler’s diesel engine and all manner of clanks, horns and rumbles from freight trains. Perhaps even, fleetingly, bird song from the backyards of homes abutting the six-lane expressway.

What you won’t hear is the sound of sound walls being constructed, because they aren’t. Or the sound of planning for those walls and a revamped MoPac going on, though in fact it is.

Frances Allen is one long-suffering homeowner backed up to MoPac (Loop 1), and she’s been trying for years to get noise buffers built. A year ago, during the Great Toll Debate, it looked as though her quest might be an accidental beneficiary of the spat over putting tolls on a section of South MoPac.

Some of that money, leaders promised, could go to those sound walls. Soon. Then the toll plan at William Cannon Drive was scuttled.

But the sound walls, and a whole lot more, should be coming to MoPac over the short and long haul.

“That’s probably five years at the soonest, ” Allen told me. “It’s really very discouraging.”

But there are tangible signs that actual progress is afoot.

The state Transportation Department has a consultant on board, DMJM Harris Inc. (pronounced Dim-Jim, which, I suppose, is better for traffic engineers than Dam-Jam).

The company’s mission is to work with state engineers on both a $110 million interim fix for MoPac — which would include sound walls, an extra lane in each direction (reserved, probably, for buses, carpools and cars paying tolls) and potentially a quieter type of pavement surface — and a long-term redesign.

Neither version would widen the footprint of the road or include an elevated second deck. Twenty years of experience, including a public relations bloodbath earlier this decade, have made it clear that those are nonstarters politically around here.

DMJM Harris is under a $492,000 contract right now, with another $1 million agreement close to dotted line time. The project manager for DMJM Harris is John Kelly, a former Transportation Department executive who led the planning on the wholesale, well-received makeover of Central Expressway in Dallas.

By late spring, Kelly says, he hopes to have three sample sound walls at a Transportation Department facility on nearby Bull Creek Road. The walls would have short, medium and tall heights and six different textures. There will be park benches set back from the walls to allow folks to sit and visualize what a given wall would look like in their backyard.

There will be public meetings and interviews with community leaders, engineering and environmental studies and, sometime before the end of the decade, actual construction.

Forgive Frances Allen if she doesn’t hold her breath waiting for it to happen.

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