Caltrans starts by performing an environmental study to determine the impact of the project on the surrounding area. “[Current] noise is just a small part of it,” says Dowda. “We use a computer model to forecast future noise; if it’s projected to be 67 decibels or higher in a residential area (72 for commercial zones), the initial threshold has been met. Then, we apply a two-part test: Is [the project] acoustically feasible? That is, will it produce a five-decibel abatement? If so, will the cost to build it be ‘reasonable’?”
A “yes” answer to these questions means only that Caltrans will consider noise abatement. The next step is a preliminary statement — a recommendation — followed by a public review process that, among other things, will address issues such as the visual impact of the proposed wall. At that point, if locals don’t object too strenuously, Caltrans has the green light — unless significant, unanticipated costs crop up during the final design. “If we have to dig up someone’s swimming pool, that’s a problem,” Dowda says. “Sometimes, we find that people have built onto our right-of-way.”
Even if the environmental study fails to unearth an endangered rat or lizard, and even if the community forum attracts not a single activist, aural relief isn’t just a jackhammer away. Take the 1-15 “managed lane” project. Notes Dowda: “The studies began in 1999, final approval was in 2003, and the estimated completion date is 2012. And that’s a quick one.”
No one would call the completion of La Mesa’s new noise wall — the long-planned project on the 94 freeway — quick. Although La Mesa residents clamored for it as early as 1995, it wasn’t finished until July 2009, and even then, the $2,000,000, 16-foot-high concrete edifice turned out to be only half as long — 1600 feet — as originally intended. Running along the freeway between Massachusetts Avenue and Waite Drive, its efficacy is a matter of neighborhood debate; some locals say it has made a drastic difference, while others say, “Abatement? What abatement?” But Dowda says the decibel meters don’t lie. “We measured a 10-decibel reduction from 75 to 65 decibels. That’s huge.”
Paul Walters is a fan of the La Mesa noise barrier. His house sits on the north side of the freeway, at the southern terminus of Massachusetts Avenue. By the time he moved to La Mesa, the 94 had long existed, effectively creating a row of a dozen homes, all situated at the ends of parallel streets cut off by the freeway. All were severely impacted by noise. But Walters saw opportunity. “I was a young divorced guy and tired of renting. For $36,000, it was a good deal in 1976. It needed work, and I was a good fixer-upper. Also, there was only one neighbor — two houses sit at the end of these streets — and I got a big lot, 150 by 60 feet.”
It was the lot size that sold Walters. Within a few years, he’d planted all manner of trees: apricot, avocado, banana, cherimoya, fig, nectarine, peach, and persimmon, along with a host of vegetables. For a freeway-side property, the place was looking pastoral. But all was not idyllic; at a scant 25 feet from the 94, Walters’ retreat attracted its share of interlopers, both human and animal. “I had all kinds of critters — skunks, rats, gophers — coming off the freeway. The worst were the people who hung around. They’d steal anything in my yard that wasn’t tied down, tools, ladders, even aluminum cans. But what really got me hot was when some guy came in and just whacked off whole bunches of my bananas — they’re plantains, actually, I have ten trees. So I built my own wooden fence.”
The redwood fence kept intruders out but did little to dampen the noise, which “was so bad I could tell the time just by listening to the traffic.” Aside from the constant drone, Walters said that before the noise barrier was erected, he’d also hear the tumult from frequent rollover accidents at the Massachusetts Avenue off-ramp. “There’s a sign on the freeway that says, ‘Signal 500 feet,’ but there’s a 6 percent downgrade, so people are going pretty fast. We have at least one accident every two or three weeks.”
Things have changed for the better, according to Walters, since the noise barrier went up. Looming six feet from the side of his house, a foot thick, and built of concrete blocks, it wins his aesthetic seal of approval: “I like it — it’s good-looking — beige, earth tones, and so on.” Most importantly, he notes, “It works. Sure, it reduces sunlight — there’s one woman in the neighborhood who’s always bitchin’ about that — but c’mon.” Retired since 2003, he spends a lot of time at home. I ask if he’s ever contemplated moving. “I actually put the house on the market in 1995, but not a single person came to look at it, probably because of the noise. But the noise wall has made a big difference. I’m here for good; I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Retrofitting an existing noise barrier is a dicey proposition, no matter how badly residents want it. It’s all a matter of funding. According to Dowda, there’s only enough money for three or four of the seven projects on the SANDAG retrofit list. Most people in freeway-bisected areas of town just live with the noise, even if they were there first.
Denise and Larry Arneson have lived in Normal Heights (at the edge of City Heights) for decades, in a house originally owned by Denise’s parents. It’s a 1926 Spanish revival, built long before the Southern California Auto Club promoted freeway construction, and long before the Eisenhower administration brought to fruition the network of interstates referred to as “defense highways.” But in 1979, the freeway finally came to the Arnesons’ doorstep, when the State of California started work on the long-awaited segment that would by the early 1990s allow San Diegans to drive south to the border on the I-15 without stopping at lights. As Denise Arneson tells it, living next to a freeway under construction may be even more disruptive than living next to one that’s already built.