Herman: Rough look of columns in Slaughter overpass at MoPac temporary

Aug 07, 2018
Ken Herman
The Texas Department of Transportation says the columns holding up the new overpass for Slaughter Lane over MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) will look better when the project is completed. KEN HERMAN / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Today, I give you something for which nobody has been clamoring: a columnist’s column columnizing about columns.

This isn’t my fault. You can blame American-Statesman reader and curious South Austinite Suzanne LaPinta. (And I’m aware that some North Austinites think all South Austinites are “curious.”) LaPinta saw something that caught her eye, and she turned to me for answers.

I’m flattered, but please note that my own family sometimes doesn’t turn to me for answers, especially if it involves home repair that might involve power tools. But let’s give this one a shot.

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“Hi Ken,” LaPinta said by way of getting our email relationship going. “I know you’ve done news stories before on ‘What IS that?’ I thought maybe you could help clear up a ‘What’s wrong with that?’ question.”

So, naturally, I geared up for a question about the Texas Legislature. But no. This question involves another deep, dusty hole where big public bucks are being spent.

“All of us South Austinites have been marveling at the construction excavation pit at the corner of South MoPac and Slaughter for several months now,” LaPinta wrote, referring to what I incorrectly thought was the big ol’ hole in which the Austin City Council plans to bury CodeNext.

What we actually have there is a massive construction project, including a new overpass to carry Slaughter Lane over that stretch of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1). The $53.5 million project started this year and has a projected completion date of early 2021. Area residents have my sympathy for the duration of this project.

Back to LaPinta: “In the last couple of weeks, some major cement posts have gone up. At first I thought perhaps they had been found during excavation because they look like ancient ruins! These are going to be major support posts for the MoPac overpass, but they are not smooth as you would expect. They look lumpy and messy, as if they have been recycled, or dug out of the ground. I’m just really curious about this because I’ve never seen posts at a new construction site look this way. It kind of makes me question their integrity. Any thoughts on the matter?”

Thoughts? You mean I’m supposed to think before I type? (And we must note that reader LaPinta’s safety-related concern is reflective of her profession. She’s a critical care nurse.)

So I did some checking around. Turns out the Texas Department of Transportation, ever eager to be frugal stewards of tax dollars, did some checking around of its own and came upon quite a bargain overseas. Faced with budget pressures, Greece is selling off some spare, unfinished Parthenon columns. TxDOT bought some, and several can now be seen holding up the work-in-progress Slaughter Lane overpass.

No. Fake news.

And, bless her heart, LaPinta didn’t wait around for newspaper boy to get the real answer, which is interesting (though less so than the Greek nonsense I made up).

“I just heard back from TxDOT,” she reported. “They sent a very thorough response that answered my questions, but still seems like a strange construction process.”

Here, as she said, is the scoop as relayed from TxDOT: “The structures you see are what we call ‘cast in ground columns.’ Crews drilled in the rock, then placed reinforcing steel into the holes and poured concrete in the drilled/reinforced hole to create the rough column. Crews then excavated around the columns to expose them, which is what you are seeing now. They look rough because of the ‘in-ground concrete placement’ technique used to construct them.

“Crews will clean the rough surfaces and encapsulate the beams with reinforced concrete enclosure. This enclosure will add additional strength to the columns and allow for aesthetic features to be placed.”

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Looks like the aesthetic features will include stars, which will be a disappointment for LaPinta who favored a wildflower motif.

LaPinta said TxDOT assured her the agency has stringent construction standards, and tests are done to make sure materials will do what they’re supposed to do — you know, like hold up big ol’ overpasses that pass over stuff.

I headed down there recently to take a look, and LaPinta is right. In their current state, the columns look rough-hewn, odd and perhaps ill-fitted to the task. I guess the columns will look better when they’re finished. (And right here I’ll acknowledge that some of my columns look rough-hewn, odd and ill-fitted to the task even when they’re finished.)

By the time I got there, the overpass had been attached atop the columns, which I’m sure looked even odder when they stood there unattached to anything.

So that’s the deal. At the risk of adding traffic at an intersection that doesn’t need more traffic, I encourage you to head to the construction site and gaze at the odd sight.

A closing thought inspired by my 15 minutes of staring into the big construction hole and taking photos on a hot summer afternoon: May God protect, preserve and procure pay raises for highway construction workers.

Thanks to all that do that work for us, even as we curse the interruptions it causes.