$1M price to rest in peace? Why adding mountain laurels along MoPac costs this much

Investigative Summary:

A regional tollway authority will spend $1 million on 55 small, native Central Texas trees for Austin Memorial Park Cemetery. Under federal law, the cemetery was supposed to get a sound wall during the construction of toll lanes on MoPac Expressway, but that never happened. Now, nearly a decade later, small trees and an irrigation system will be added instead, at a price tag some are questioning.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It was a quiet day at Austin Memorial Park Cemetery. A canopy of shade trees covered much of the burial area.

It’s a place Sharon Blythe visits often.

“Became involved with a cemetery in 1989, when my husband passed away, and we buried him out here,” Blythe explained.

A breeze blew across the peaceful resting ground spanning more than 80 acres in northwest Austin. For decades, the cemetery has been tucked away in the shadows of the MoPac Expressway.

Blythe has made it her mission to protect the cemetery from the traffic and construction. She’s part of Austin RAMP, or Rescue Austin Memorial Park Cemetery.

“We came together to try to continue to advocate for the cemetery and the boundaries of the cemetery so that we wouldn’t have constant encroachment efforts,” she said as cars roared by and a nearby train drowned out her voice. 

Push for a sound wall

The group helped designate this resting place as a Historic Texas Cemetery in 2008.

When they found out about the MoPac Improvement Project in 2012, Blythe said they had to get involved given how close the construction was to the cemetery. 

image of the retaining wall right near the cemetery
The MoPac Improvement Project had no impact on the already-existing retaining wall. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

The project was headed by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority or CTRMA and added express lanes to help with congestion. It also constructed sound walls at certain locations. 

CTRMA explained under Federal Environmental Law, the cemetery was supposed to get a sound wall. 

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the effects of projects like the MoPac Improvement on historic properties. 

“They cannot build a highway that’s going to affect historic property. So they must do some kind of mitigation to protect the historic property,” Blythe explained. “Since I had done the historical research and made this historic property, I realized that under federal law, they had to do something.”

Construction woes

In documents from 2012, CTRMA detailed challenges with a sound wall including an existing retaining wall, nearby headstones and access for the construction equipment, among other things.

Cemetery with grave and retaining wall
CTRMA said the existing retaining wall along with utility foundations and nearby headstones made construction of a sound wall challenging. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

The agency said the project was halted because of those construction hurdles and costs, and CTRMA wanted to consult with the groups involved including the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Historical Commission, Austin RAMP and the City of Austin, which owns and operates the cemetery. 

Over the years, CTRMA explained the project was renegotiated as they all tried to find another solution. Ultimately, the group landed on planting trees instead of adding a sound wall, but even that was problematic. 

“We had another species of trees, live oaks chosen, and then it it morphed into other species. And, then we finally agreed that laurel mountain trees would be the best because they don’t grow real high, but they’re more bushy,” Blythe said. “And they’ll grow faster and protect the view from MoPac.”

A CTRMA spokesperson explained in an email to KXAN investigators it had to consider the power lines and roots of the trees, which could impact the retaining wall and existing or unmarked graves.

$1M visual barrier 

Nine years later and after all those discussions, the planting of the trees resurfaced during a CTRMA Board of Directors meeting on Aug. 25. 

Listed as item number 12 on the agenda, it was up for a vote so the project could move forward. 

Moutain laurels in bloom. The small trees are native to Central Texas. (Courtesy Bill Carson)
Moutain laurels in bloom. The small trees are native to Central Texas. (Courtesy Bill Carson)

“If you’ve driven out there, you may not notice the cemetery. You’re elevated as you drive through that section. But, that’s essentially the wall that is the exit ramp for 2222,” said Mike Sexton, CTRMA’s Acting Director of Engineering. “So as you’re elevated — through there we’ll be adding in those mountain laurels to break up the sight lines coming from the cemetery side.”

Sexton explained to the board that 55 15-gallon mountain laurels, native to Central Texas, would be planted along the already existing retaining wall with an irrigation system. 

The cost: $1 million dollars. 

“Wow! A million dollars to plant those trees. Damn!” exclaimed CTRMA Board Member John Langmore during the meeting. “And we’re bearing all the costs of that — not the city, not TxDOT?”

Sexton explained further. 

“The trees themselves are significantly less. The total project or budgeted cost we’re estimating is a million dollars. That includes, I’ll say, a significant amount of contingency related to the excavation that’s going to occur on site,” Sexton said. “I believe — our guesstimate on actual costs total all in is closer to $500-to-$600,000. But we need to have opportunity that issues do arise during construction that we can continue to move it forward.”

The board members had been informed about the item and its price tag the Friday before the meeting — giving them five days to consider it before voting.

cars drive on MoPac right next to the cemetery, which is blocked by a few bushes
A sound wall was supposed to be constructed between Austin Memorial Park Cemetery and MoPac but instead small trees will be planted now. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

“There’s more to it than just adding greenery and making it aesthetically pleasing. It really is to put a buffer and in some level — a sound between the increased traffic, an— and it is — it is our responsibility,” explained CTRMA Board Chairman and well-known Austin businessman Bobby Jenkins during an interview. “One of the things that I’m very proud of at CTRMA —that the agency has done all along — is we don’t just slap down a road and make it a toll lane, right? We do so many things that really enhance the experience for the users and for the community around that roadway.”

The Memorandum Of Agreement all parties involved signed Aug. 30 said the budget for the small trees is $46,267, which includes, among other things, design of the landscaping, planting, the installation of an irrigation system, inspection of the work, replacing any of the trees that don’t survive the first two years and paying for the water for three years along with maintenance and repairs. 

The agency spokesperson explained in an email to KXAN investigators that the cost is from the original estimate.

“Due to the nature of the work, which was only defined as ‘trees’ during the development of the contract, there will be differences in cost estimates when progressing from the planning stage and final design stage,” the spokesperson said. 

Sexton pointed out to the Board that $400,000 is in case human remains are discovered during excavation and installation. He said that’s why they’ll have an archaeologist there full time to observe the work. 

A sign showing Section 9 and 10 of the cemetery
The small trees would be planted in sections 9 and 10 of Austin Memorial Park Cemetery. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

So what about the rest — $553,733 — more than half a million?

“The contingency funds are noted as available for addressing impacts discovered during the construction which might result in contractor delays, increased costs and coordination with other parties. This flexibility for staff to address these situations discovered during construction is necessary due to the need of timely addressing them in the field,” the spokesperson explained.

KXAN investigators repeatedly asked for a breakdown of those costs, but CTRMA said it needs to wait for the work to be bid out to have a more accurate number once the design and permitting is complete. 

“We really want to be a good partner in the community, a good neighbor. So while, the price tag is high, I think it’s appropriate,” Jenkins explained. “I firmly feel and believe it’s our obligation to approve it. I mean, quite frankly, I live in that general area. And, so, I want us to do what we said CTRMA was going to do. And you know, we will make the numbers work.”

‘Smells like grape Kool-Aid’

Bill Carson surrounded by mountain laurels in Austin. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)
Bill Carson surrounded by mountain laurels in Austin. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

Bill Carson grows mountain laurels at his nursery in Austin. He said they can grow to be between about 15 and 30 feet tall. 

Carson explained that a 15-gallon mountain laurel at local garden centers can cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 or $160.

“Their greatest attraction is the bloom. They bloom in late March, early April for about two weeks. The bloom is a lavender or purple. And, actually, it smells like grape Kool-Aid,” Carson said.

He has about 20,000 planted now to sell to nurseries and landscape companies and said they’re finally coming back after the hard freeze earlier this year. 

“This freeze was so severe that it did impact them. We lost maybe 25% of our crop and then had the rest of the crop set back some,” Carson explained. “So, that’s why we’re just now being able to offer the plants back into the market after the freeze because they’ve grown back from that.”

  • Mountain laurels are native to Central Texas and can grow 15 to about 30 feet tall. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson and Arezow Doost)
  • mountain laurel flowers
  • Sign that says "Texas mountain laurel"
  • Mountain Laurel plants in buckets

He said the freeze did lead to an increase in prices — about 5% to 10% across all types of plants.

When asked if it surprises him that this type of project will cost $1 million, he replied, “Yes, it does. Quite frankly, that does sound like a high price tag.”

‘I reluctantly move approval’

Even after lingering questions about the $1 million price of the project, the CTRMA board approved the motion about 2 months ago. 

“I need a motion to approve,” said Chairman Jenkins at the time as silence filled the room. “OK. Still need a motion to approve.”

After nearly seven seconds, Board Member David Armbrust replied, “I reluctantly move approval.”

All board members except Langmore voted to move the project forward.

“We’ve got to do what we promised that we were going to do. That’s what’s always important for any agency, our credibility, and we’re required to do that. And, it’s really not just a visual, it’s really so much more than that,” Jenkins said during an interview in October. “That we honor those commitments that we made years before. I’d say that’s money that was well invested. And, again, this isn’t public tax dollars that are going to this. This is toll use dollars that are going to it.”

Planting timeline 

CTRMA said planting the small trees could start as soon as bids go out, but right now there is no schedule set. 

Sharon Blythe, a long time advocate for the cemetery, has been pushing for this project for nearly a decade. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)
Sharon Blythe, a long time advocate for the cemetery, has been pushing for this project for nearly a decade. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

Chairman Jenkins said this is the most practical alternative. He doesn’t anticipate the price going beyond the million dollars.

If there is any unspent money, the CTRMA spokesperson said it will be returned to be used on future roadway maintenance. 

CTRMA said the tree planting at the cemetery was part of the larger landscaping requirement for the overall MoPac Improvement Project. The overall project cost was $137 million.

Funding for the work came from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization or CAMPO’s Regional Infrastructure Fund that was approved for the project in 2012, as well as revenue from tolls.

In 2022, drivers are expected to pay more than $150 million in tolls and fees to CTRMA — a 28% increase from 2020. Those tolls and fees make up about 95% of its operating revenue. 

“Anything we could think of would have been more expensive, like a sound wall,” Blythe said.

headstone of sharon blythe's husband john
Blythe’s husband was buried at Austin Memorial Park Cemetery until 2014. (Courtesy Sharon Blythe)

She’ll be watching the work closely even though her husband is no longer buried at the cemetery. She moved him to another outside the city. 

Blythe spoke during the August meeting over Zoom about the significance of moving forward with this project. She said she didn’t know until then that the cost would be $1 million. 

“This was a federal obligation for them to do this project. And, that whatever the cost, is well worth it because it’s a federal regulation for historic properties,” she said.

News Director Chad Cross, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Photojournalist Chris Nelson and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.

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