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Dallas Is Building a Great Wall to Keep Out the … Noise

Dallas' great wall is actually pretty good at keeping out noise on LBJ Freeway.EXPAND
Dallas' great wall is actually pretty good at keeping out noise on LBJ Freeway.
Richie Whitt

What are we gonna build? “A wall!”

Who’s gonna pay for it? “Mexi … er, TxDOT!”

Residents in Lake Highlands are getting some long-sought peace and quiet, thanks to the construction of a giant, gaudy wall. Not the one at the heart of President Donald Trump’s controversial national emergency, but rather the one being erected by the Texas Department of Transportation as part of the $1.6 billion LBJ East project.

The 15-foot, patterned-concrete monstrosity is intended not to keep out Mexico’s caravan, but rather LBJ Freeway's cacophony.

“The adding of noise walls has been a good public involvement tool,” TxDOT spokeswoman Michelle Raglon says. “The residents who voted to have the barriers on this project are the real winners.”

Long before Siri or MapQuest or even Mapsco, “avoid 635” has been standard operating procedure for Dallasites giving directions. The 50-year-old freeway boasts eight lanes, two HOV alternatives and carries 200,000 vehicles per day through Mesquite, Garland, Lake Highlands, north Dallas, Carrollton, Irving and Coppell.

Along an 11-mile stretch between Interstate 30 and Central Expressway, 635 gets particularly nasty. Neighborhoods just to the south — with houses and backyards separated from the freeway by only an alley – have, for decades, been serenaded by belching traffic jams, speed, engines, brakes, horns and accidents. It’s not exactly Flint’s water crisis, but 635’s relentless noise pollution has a tangible, negative drag on everything from property values to quality of life.

In 2017, my wife and I were house hunting in Dallas and momentarily swooned at an address on Arborhill Drive. The home had nice curb appeal, a gorgeous fireplace, open floor plan, updated kitchen and, oh look, a deck and a big back yard and … Blammo! Immediately upon opening the back door we were punched in the earholes by the roaring monster that is LBJ. It was just beyond the fence, but already invading our soul. The realtor, standing 2 feet away, literally couldn’t hear us say, in unison, “Next?!”

LBJ’s toxic mix of noise and traffic was first presented for resolution in 2003, but after a quick TxDOT study, the proposal received a dreaded FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact). As population grew and 635 became accordingly more congested, ear-ringing residents along the reverberating corridor launched “LBJ Now,” an advocacy group aimed at tugging on the state’s shirttails. Once a month — for years — LBJ Now members (mostly residents of Lake Highlands, where the houses are harrowingly close to the road) drove to Austin to push their desperate agenda. The mayors of Garland and Mesquite, Dallas County Commissioner Theresa Daniel and state Sen. Don Huffines eventually backed the group and echoed a call for a solution.

Better late than never, LBJ East.

The project began late last year and, when finished in 2024, will widen 635 from eight to 10 lanes, rebuild the two HOV lanes and, yes, leave behind a noise-dampening sound barrier in the form of a wall. Not a contiguous Great Wall of Dallas, mind you, but nine separate walls. (Project funding approved 11 walls, but two of the eligible landowners — an apartment complex and a shopping center that didn’t want to sacrifice visibility — declined construction.)

The walls are more practical than pretty. In other words, yes, ugly.

A self-guided tour of the construction sites along 635 provided an up-close view of the unfinished-but-already-effective walls. They ooze all the charm of a prison barrier. 15 feet tall. About a foot wide. A bland blend of gray and off-white concrete, accented by the kind of haphazard pattern you might find in the foyer of your favorite Tex-Mex cantina.

Eyesores to residents’ sight. Music to their ears.

The walls work. Amazingly. They are dense yet porous, designed to absorb noise and disperse decibels. And they are built only a couple of steps on the other side of residential alleys. So while homeowners must be mindful not to dent their bumpers while backing out of their driveways, they can theoretically now venture into their backyards without ear plugs.

Outside the wall, on a scale of 1 to 10, the noise was an 11 going on getmethehellouttahere. Less than 5 feet south and inside the wall — standing in the alley — it was a 2. The wall, as promised, reduced the roar to a purr. Abatement achieved.

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Quiet enough, in fact, to have a normal conversation with a passing neighbor.

“Oh, it makes all the difference in the world,” says nearby homeowner Candace Johnson, who has walked her dogs for 12 years up and down Ferndale and Vistadale streets. “The other day I was walking and you know what I heard? A bird chirping. That may not sound like a big deal, but to us around here it’s the greatest sound in the world.”

Some of the walls, like the one between Royal Lane and Plano Road, will be finished in March. Others, such as the one behind the house on Arborhill, will take until summer.

They are trending the landscape more Huntsville than handsome, and the sprawling blank canvas likely has graffiti artists rubbing their hands together, but Trump was right: Walls work. For noise.

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