The residential fringes along Southern California’s freeways are rapidly turning into noisy political battlegrounds.
From Sepulveda to Duarte and Westwood to Santa Ana, homeowners along older freeways are demanding that the state erect cinder-block sound walls to reduce the gear-grinding din mounting outside their windows.
But the state Legislature has turned a deaf ear to their complaints, setting sound-wall construction on older freeways as its lowest priority for dwindling state highway funds.
In the past year, the state sound-wall budget has dropped from $23.3 million to $6.8 million, according to the California Department of Transportation. In 1985, Los Angeles County’s share was just $3.6 million, and state highway officials expect that it will dwindle to nothing by 1988.
Orange County has an inventory of 32 sound-wall projects totaling $23.5 million that meet standards for state funding--yet only five to 10 of them have any realistic hopes of being funded “in the foreseeable future,” county Transportation Commission spokesman Ron Cole said. Statewide, planners have pinpointed 237 projects that would cost $209 million and cover a total of 200 miles.
The clamor for sound walls mounted in the early 1970s, after Congress required that noise be reduced along new interstate highways and major reconstruction projects and agreed that the federal government would pay the lion’s share. But Congress did not require states to build sound walls along existing highways.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said that “the older communities are in the worst position because there’s not enough money to go back and rehabilitate the existing freeways. . . . It’s basically unfair . . . to the people who have been putting up with the problem the longest.”
But as people living in pockets next to freeways began to protest the rising noise, the state earmarked a small portion of its share of federal highway funds to build sound walls, especially where the roadways had sliced through poorer communities.
Then, more upscale communities began to lobby for the walls, turning them into a political issue.
Ann Barkley, chief of planning at Caltrans for five years during the Administration of Edmund G. Brown Jr., said that sound walls “didn’t become politically acknowledged until people in neighborhoods with more money got involved.”
In the affluent Orange County community of Rossmoor, for instance, residents have lobbied for nearly a decade for a 1 1/2-mile-long sound wall near the intersection of the San Diego and San Gabriel River freeways.
Rossmoor residents complain not only about the noise, but the fact that stranded motorists often elect to hike through their backyards, rather than walk up to the Katella Avenue freeway off-ramp.
But because noise levels in Rossmoor are not as high as those in many other areas, and because plans for the San Diego Freeway were already in place when the community was built, Rossmoor has ranked relatively low on the list of state funding priorities.
“Realistically, it could be 25 years before they ever got the funding” under priorities now, said Brion May, aide to Supervisor Harriett Wieder. As a result, Wieder is attempting to persuade local legislators to introduce a separate bill to raise the $1.6 million needed for the Rossmoor sound wall.
The depth of feeling on the sound-wall issue was perhaps most clearly marked in Orange County in 1984 with the vote on a proposed one-cent local increase in the sales tax to pay for transportation improvements, said Stan Oftelie, director of the county Transportation Commission.
The unpopular sales tax measure failed in every Orange County precinct except one--a single neighborhood in Seal Beach. Residents of the precinct said in interviews later that they had voted for the tax hike in the hope that it would win them a long-sought sound wall along the San Diego Freeway.
Three major sound-wall projects are programmed for funding in Orange County over the next five years.
A sound wall is scheduled for construction in 1988-89 in Anaheim along the northbound Santa Ana Freeway between Euclid Street and Magnolia Avenue. And several miles of sound walls will be built in noise-impacted areas in connection with the widening of the San Diego Freeway and the reconstruction of the interchange between the Santa Ana and Costa Mesa freeways.
The shortage of funds has prompted a number of legislative squabbles over whose district will get sound walls.
At the heart of the issue is how California is allocating the $5.6 billion in its five-year state transportation improvement program.
State highway projects have been hard hit by federal cutbacks because Congress has underwritten the bulk of them. In Los Angeles, the situation is compounded because at least $1.4 billion, mostly in federal and county funds, has been committed to building the Century Freeway between Norwalk and Los Angeles International Airport.
“Sound walls are not as important as the Century Freeway or the Harbor (Freeway) transit way or as Interstate 5 improvements in Orange County,” asserted Robert S. Nielsen, executive director of the state Transportation Commission, which doles out state highway funds and has ranked the 237 most-needed sound walls in the state.
The prevailing view in the Legislature--and one that is supported by the commission--is that the state’s highest priority should be fixing potholes and maintaining existing highways, followed by improving safety, relieving congestion, constructing new freeways and, last, landscaping, cleaning up and building sound walls on existing highways.
These priorities have been endorsed by Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), who said he would prefer to see money “go into pavement rather than sound walls.” Davis, for example, is concerned about California 126, a two-lane stretch of Ventura County highway between Santa Paula and Interstate 5. Davis’ office estimates that there have been at least 22 deaths along that road in the past two years.
“With people getting killed on the 126,” Davis said, “it’s a crime to build sound walls. . . . I know people suffer from noise but they suffer from death on 126.”
But frustrated homeowners in neighborhoods near freeways are concerned about their own health and safety. They complain that they have trouble sleeping and are unable to enjoy an outdoor barbecue, and they worry about the impact of the noise on their children.
Their view was summed up by Sen. William Lockyer (D-Hayward), who carried legislation that took effect in 1982 expanding the criteria for building sound walls on older freeways. He said the noise next to freeways is so loud that “you can go to someone’s living room and barely be heard shouting.”
Just living next to a loud freeway, however, does not qualify a community for a sound wall. Caltrans first must show that the noise along the highway reaches at least 67 decibels--as loud as a portable vacuum cleaner or traffic on a busy downtown street--which is the threshold of noise required to be considered for a sound wall under federal noise standards.
The state then takes into account how many homes would be affected by a wall and the cost--which averages $1 million a mile--and whether a wall would reduce the noise by five to seven decibels.
A project matching these conditions is ranked on a priority list, but it still may be years away from construction.
Meantime, residents turn increasingly angry and sometimes seek relief from their legislators. For some lawmakers, obtaining a sound wall has become a test of their political clout. And, when they succeed, the wall is a visible reminder of that clout--right in their constituents’ backyards.
One of the longest-running fights has pitted Assemblyman Dave Elder (D-Long Beach) against Caltrans. Elder says that residents along California 91 in North Long Beach were promised by Caltrans that construction on a sound wall was imminent in 1982, but the wall has yet to be built.
“They (Caltrans) created their own problem. If they hadn’t told us, we wouldn’t have raised the expectations of the community,” said Elder, who publicized what he thought was Caltrans’ agreement to build the barrier three years ago. The wall is now 98th on the statewide priority list.
Heinz Heckeroth, Caltrans chief deputy director, acknowledged that his department--which at the time was planning other sound walls in North Long Beach--may have improperly communicated which wall was to be built.
Hard to Rectify
“And I’ve apologized,” said Heckeroth, who formerly oversaw Caltrans operations in Los Angeles. ". . . But a miscommunication like that can’t be rectified by simply saying: ‘We’ll give you the sound wall.’ ”
In September, three legislators were more successful than Elder in getting funds for sound walls because of special circumstances in the Legislature.
Katz and Assemblymen Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton) and Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk) injected money for sound walls into a bill dividing an anticipated windfall of federal offshore oil revenues.
“My job is to look out for my constituents,” said Katz, explaining that he placed the $4.4-million project between Roscoe Boulevard and Plummer Street on the San Diego Freeway into the bill because the sound wall was near the bottom of the state priority list. Construction was warranted years ahead of schedule, he said, because the noise level in the area is rising.
But sometimes the best intentions are not enough. In the same bill, Grisham sought $550,000 for sound walls requested by the City of Artesia. The city wanted Caltrans to build three sound walls running along 2,800 feet of the Artesia Freeway both east and west of Pioneer Boulevard. The city’s highest priorities were two projects running about 1,600 feet west of Pioneer Boulevard, said H. M. Campbell, interim city manager.
Instead, the bill funded the lower-priority sound wall east of Pioneer, said Carrie Harper, an aide to Grisham. The two other projects “just kind of got lost along the way,” said Harper, who added that the assemblyman expects to rework the priorities when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Allan Hendrix, who heads the highway division of Caltrans, conceded that “individual legislators deliver projects to their constituents,” but he noted that “there’s no statewide equity in that.” He said he would prefer that legislators follow the state priority list.
Hendrix said that by seeking non-highway funds for a highway project, Grisham and the other lawmakers underscored the shortage of state and federal highway money. A few cities have also turned to alternate financing schemes. Santa Fe Springs was one of the first to take advantage of a state law passed in the late 1970s that allows cities to build a sound wall ahead of schedule and then be reimbursed when the project reaches the top of the priority list. This year, Caltrans estimates, the city will receive its first payment of $1.1 million for a $1.6-million sound wall that stretches 1.2 miles on Interstate 605 between the Santa Ana Freeway and the Los Nietos Road Overpass.
Still other communities, such as Toluca Lake, have grown so disenchanted with the process that they are contemplating taxing themselves to build the walls.
“Noise anywhere is noxious and stressful,” said George Patterson, a marriage and family counselor who purchased a home a block away from the Ventura Freeway in Toluca Lake five years ago.
When Patterson appeared before a subcommittee of the county Transportation Commission earlier this year, he pulled two portable vacuum cleaners out of his briefcase and turned them on to demonstrate the noise that penetrates his home from the freeway.
‘It’s Very Noisy’
“Their basic argument was that it’s very noisy. We agreed with all that,” said Caltrans’ Hendrix, but that was insufficient reason to move up the Toluca Lake project from its 169th spot on the state ranking.
“Every neighborhood near a freeway thinks they have a sound problem whether they do or don’t,” said Hendrix, noting that many residential strips next to freeways are noisy but still do not qualify for sound walls.
In contrast, if noise inside a school classroom near a freeway goes above 52 decibels--which is the level of a conversation or a loud clock--Caltrans is obligated under state law to either soundproof the room or build a noise barrier.
The rules for sound walls are constantly being revamped.
For example, Hendrix said, the state changed its system of estimating noise levels about five years ago. Instead of making mathematical calculations--based on traffic volume and other factors--from inside their offices, Caltrans engineers began to take noise readings next to the freeways. As a result, some locations “turned out not to be eligible. Others turned out to be eligible and weren’t on the list,” Hendrix said.
Another change initiated by the Legislature also dealt a setback to some projects.
That was the case along the 210 Freeway, where the City of Duarte has been seeking a sound wall between Highland and Mountain avenues. Since the freeway opened about 15 years ago, traffic has jumped from 40,000 vehicles a day to 132,000, according to City Manager J. Kenneth Caresio.
When the city first sought the sound wall in the 1970s, Caltrans placed the highest priority on projects in neighborhoods that existed before the highway route was adopted. Under Sen. Lockyer’s legislation, which took effect in 1982, that was expanded to include all neighborhoods that existed before a freeway was opened.
“It allowed more people to compete” for the limited funds, said Caresio, whose project dropped from 170th on the list to 195th.
Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), who represents Duarte, speculated that Lockyer was able to push his bill through without much controversy, largely because “the Department of Transportation was doing anything they could for the majority party . . . " under the Democratic Administration of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown. Jr.
But, Mountjoy added: “Now, they’re saying: ‘We’re going to be nonpartisan in our approach.’ ” Tongue in cheek, he suggested: “I think it ought to be partisan for Republicans this year.”
Lockyer, however, denied that there was partisanship in his bill, saying: “I believe the highway system is properly nonpolitical. . . . I like having some engineer who measures traffic flows and noise levels and develops some objective standard rather than a political test.”
It was the strict interpretation of that standard--which matches the federal standard for noise created along new freeways--that helped thwart one of the most intensely lobbied sound-wall projects in recent years. Residents along the San Diego Freeway at the base of the Sepulveda Pass in Encino between Ventura and Sepulveda boulevards convinced Assemblyman Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles) that they should get a sound wall, even though the project did not meet the noise standards and was not ranked on the priority list.
In May, 1984, Davis wrote in a letter to transportation commissioners that “the neighborhood . . . is subjected day and night to frequent random peaks of sound caused by the constant shift of gears and acceleration of large vehicles.” Davis won over the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, which makes recommendations to the state commission.
Nonetheless, state commissioners turned back the bid. Orange County Supervisor Bruce Nestande, chairman of the state commission, said Davis “exerted a lot of pressure” but finally backed off when he realized that the commission’s procedures would be undermined.
“We would have violated our own procedures and the credibility of our own system and then been playing politics with projects,” Nestande said. “That’s why the commission was created--to end brokering.”
At the same time, at the other end of the Sepulveda Pass in the community of Westwood Hills, another fight was unfolding that would prove more successful.
About eight years ago, television consumer reporter David Horowitz purchased a hillside house about half a block from the San Diego Freeway. After he moved in, the state widened the freeway and built a noise wall on the western side of the freeway opposite his home. Horowitz contended, and Caltrans agreed, that some noise bounced off the wall into his neighborhood.
Horowitz helped mobilize the neighborhood to force Caltrans to build a sound wall on his side of the freeway. Meantime, Horowitz said, a Caltrans sound engineer in 1977 suggested that he could reduce the sound level around his home by building a six- to eight-foot-high concrete block wall. Horowitz took the suggestion and spent $15,000 to build an eight-foot concrete wall and cut the noise.
It wasn’t until about a year ago--long after Horowitz built his wall--that Caltrans broke ground for its $2.9-million sound barrier along the San Diego Freeway between Sunset Boulevard and Bell Terrace.
Meanwhile, Horowitz had grown so fed up with the situation that he sold his home to his brother. “That’s the irony,” said Horowitz. “Now, we have left the neighborhood.”
William Minter, who oversees Caltrans sound wall projects in the Los Angeles area, conceded that “we may have advised people to build their own walls . . . if they wanted to mitigate the sound.” But he added that the new Caltrans wall would not reduce the ruckus outside Horowitz’s former hillside residence. It would require a wall perhaps 50 feet high to block out the noise, Minter said, contrasted with a normal sound wall of 11 to 18 feet.
Just as Horowitz turned to his own pocketbook, other homeowners near freeways may have to tax themselves in order to get the walls built.
The staff of the county Transportation Commission is considering recommending that neighborhoods disturbed by sound form tax assessment districts to raise the money to build sound walls.
But Assemblyman Mountjoy questioned why people who have suffered from the noise for years should pay an extra tax when those along new freeways automatically get the walls. “I don’t know if that’s fair,” Mountjoy said. “Why should people have to pay for it?”
And other approaches may be tried in the Legislature. Mountjoy is contemplating reintroducing a proposal, which he shelved several years ago, to allow cities that install sound walls ahead of schedule to receive interest as well as repayment for the cost of the sound wall.
Lockyer is mulling over a possible vehicle tax increase for trucks, which are responsible for many of the noise complaints.
Katz, chairman of the influential Assembly Transportation Committee, said a proposal to reorder the priority list and move up sound walls might have a better shot at passage. Assemblyman Johan Klehs (D-San Leandro) said he is considering introducing such a proposal this year.
Until then, said Ginger Gherardi, a highway planner with the county Transportation Commission, sound walls will remain “at the bottom of the heap in terms of what’s going to be funded today.”