Wear: MoPac project’s final folly: Cracked sound walls


Even before the MoPac toll project was done, officials detected installation flaws degrading the barriers.

About 2 miles of barrier will need repairs, work to be done by this fall, officials said.

An additional 3 miles or so of wall, still under construction, was shut down to investigate the problem.

Perhaps we should refer to those concrete barriers lining North MoPac Boulevard as “un-sound walls.”

As regular users of that (partially tolled) highway no doubt have noticed by now, a long expanse of tall and tan sound suppression walls along MoPac’s east side, south of Enfield Road, lately have become instead a see-through row of white concrete pillars. It calls to mind an immense piano keyboard, with the black keys missing.

And on other lengthy stretches of MoPac, including much of its run from Westover Road to Hancock Drive on both sides, construction of more sound walls skidded to a halt about 10 months ago with little public notice. Left along those parts of MoPac’s right of way have been rows of concrete “caps” at ground level, with sprays of steel rebar protruding from them.

That includes the run behind the Westfield Drive home of Frances Allen, the retired school teacher who since the early 1990s has been advocating, and then waiting (and waiting and waiting), for sound walls along MoPac. I’ve written several times about Allen, most recently in December 2016 when I was being told she’d have her wall within six months.

It did not happen.

READ: Frances Allen’s decades-long quest for MoPac peace and quiet

Ms. Allen, I’ll tell you what I know, having now talked to a group of officials from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. As always with this frustrating and long-delayed highway project, any predicted completion times below must be put in the context of the many missed deadlines since the toll lanes project first broke ground more than four years ago.

Here’s the sad, underlying news: About 2 miles of sound walls — about two-thirds of the concrete barriers already in place — were built improperly by contractor CH2M and its subcontractors and will have to be repaired at their expense. The lower-most concrete panels in some of those walls have sprouted cracks where they rest on those concrete caps, a consequence, officials told me, of many of the caps having been built too small.

Some of the foundation caps will be expanded, to spread out the load from above. And all of those lower panels, roughly 500 of them, will be replaced with new panels with more metal reinforcement embedded near where they rest on the caps.

Only the “cast-in-place” sections of sound walls, about a total of a mile of walls mostly built on and near overpasses, will escape the need for repair.

Mobility authority officials say that the rehab cost — a figure they declined to speculate on — will fall on CH2M, not the authority. The authority and its contractor last fall reached what both sides said was a final reckoning on the toll lane project’s total cost, agreeing not to sue each other.

As for the other 3 miles or so of walls-to-be — those sections with only the foundations — they went back into active construction just after the new year following that hiatus so officials could figure out what was causing the cracks in the completed walls and make the design changes. CH2M commissioned an engineering study of the walls during that shutdown. The mobility authority, at CH2M’s behest, declined to give me a copy of that study, saying that its contract with CH2M gave the company the right to withhold internal reports.

Yes, even the sound walls on the MoPac project went wildly wrong.

I’ll remind you that some of the toll lanes added to each side of MoPac, the raison d’etre of all this heartache, opened in October 2016, followed a year later by the remaining sections. The walls were a side effect, occasioned by federal law requiring their addition (if neighborhoods vote to have them) when an urban highway is expanded and causes greater traffic noise.

When will all this wall repair and new construction be done? Remember, this whole project — the toll lanes, the walls, everything — was originally supposed to have been completed in September 2015. We were all so young back then.

RELATED: What went wrong on MoPac toll project

Now the new sections of wall, including the one behind Allen’s home, should be done by June, said Steve Pustelnyk, the mobility authority’s community relations director.

As for the massive job of replacing those lower panels on the other 2 miles of wall — the upper panels have to be hoisted out first with cranes, then meticulously reinserted afterwards — “it’s possible some of the repair work could extend through the summer, into August or September,” Pustelnyk said.

That repair work will stretch from near West Sixth Street, where Barrier 20B rests upon a Clarksville bluff, to near Spicewood Springs Road, site of Barrier No. 1 near the southbound lanes.

In all, 11 of the original design’s 19 sound walls will have repairs.

Thirteen walls are in various stages of incompleteness (there is some overlap, with some barriers needing both repair of existing sections and fresh construction of other parts) and will be built by CH2M.

Then there is yet another sound wall, this one adjacent to the Westminster Manor senior center north of West 35th, that was not planned originally but was added to the plan in the past year after discussions with Westminster residents. That 1,600-foot barrier will be built under a separate contract with someone other than CH2M, a deal that won’t even be inked until late spring.

When will that one be completed? The mobility authority declined to even make a guess.

RELATED: Are the toll lanes helping MoPac traffic overall?

Some of this work on the sound walls, located as they are just inches from active traffic lanes, will require lane closures, Pustelnyk said. “Most, if not all (of those closures) will be at night,” he said.

When this is all done, MoPac will have about 7 miles of sound walls, and a few hundred yards of what the authority calls “neighborhood” walls. Those are shorter structures, mostly alongside exits at West 35th and West 45th streets, that are replacing wooden fences the city put up decades ago in MoPac’s infancy as primitive sound barriers.

Allen has one of those wooden fences. Having been in her backyard, I can assure you that it does not bar the sound.

Allen, a bubbly and optimistic sort, seemed in our most recent conversation finally to have lost patience with it all. She turns 83 in March and has been trying to get that wood fence replaced for close to a third of her life.

“It is, once again, a mess,” Allen said. “I’ve gotten to where I’m not really trying to keep up with it anymore. At this point, I just don’t know what is ever going to happen.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Summer heat means preparing for disease-carrying mosquitoes, ticks
Summer heat means preparing for disease-carrying mosquitoes, ticks

Mosquitoes and ticks are moving in for the summer as temperatures heat up, but Central Texas residents can take precautions. Why are they here? Mosquitoes and ticks like warm weather. Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said mosquitoes are more likely to breed now that temperatures are at least 90 degrees...
Long-awaited ACC campus about to open in Leander
Long-awaited ACC campus about to open in Leander

Leander has been waiting a long time for this. Thirty-three years after property owners in the Leander school district began paying taxes to Austin Community College, ACC is about to open a campus here. Dubbed San Gabriel, for the river fed by a nearby tributary, the campus will host a grand opening celebration Wednesday, with classes starting Aug...
Police: Officers who pointed guns at boys acted appropriately
Police: Officers who pointed guns at boys acted appropriately

Austin police officials say officers acted appropriately when they pointed their guns at two boys after receiving a report that one of them was pointing a weapon — which turned out to be a toy — at cars driving by their front yard. The officers’ response was troubling to one neighbor who shared video of the encounter with the American-Statesman...
At UT, Linda Chanow makes a place for women in law
At UT, Linda Chanow makes a place for women in law

When Linda Bray Chanow arrived at the University of Texas Law School eight years ago to lead UT’s Center for Women in Law, only one alumna was pictured on the stately walls of the school’s first floor, which serves as a sort of UT legal hall of fame. “Alice Sheffield was in a place where many students didn’t see her,”...
Mexican voters in Texas weigh who will be future president of Mexico
Mexican voters in Texas weigh who will be future president of Mexico

Rossy Lima de Padilla, 31, has no plans of ever returning to live in Mexico. In fact the thought of living in Mexico after being in Texas for the last 18 years gives her mini panic attacks. But Lima de Padilla, a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, is sure of one thing: She will vote for the first time in the upcoming...
More Stories