- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
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.
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.
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.
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.”