Looks as if 80-year-old Lois Gergen of Garden Grove won't need her decibel meter from Radio Shack any more. Corinne and Tim Brubaker, who live across the street, will finally be able to open the front windows of their home. And it soon will be possible, after more than three decades, for all of them to have a conversation outside without shouting.
To the relief of those who live on Anthony Avenue, Caltrans will break ground today on the first of seven sound walls that residents along the Garden Grove Freeway have been fighting for since Nixon took office.
"I don't care how much dirt they kick up or how much noise they make. I'm ecstatic about it," said Connie Naranjo, a homeowner on Anthony Avenue who has worked for almost two decades to get the walls built.
Residents who moved in as newlyweds are now pensioners who have spent most of their married life asking the state please to stop the noise. Their children played under the din of cars whizzing by, went off to the prom to the tune of horns honking.
People turned up the volume on their television sets to drown out the march of traffic as they watched the Watergate hearings during the 1970s and cooked inside on countless sweltering summer days because an outdoor barbecue was too sound-drenched.
Under two transportation programs approved by Gov. Gray Davis, Orange County will receive $35.7 million to build the barriers. They will be 16 feet high and made of brown concrete block to match existing sound walls. Vines will be grown to cover them.
"The whole program is an example of the type of change we want to bring to the agency," said Caltrans Director Jeff Morales, who was appointed in June 2000. "We want to deliver projects on time. Our job is make them happen now. People shouldn't have to wait 30 years."
The walls are expected to provide a less exciting life, perhaps, but generally more relaxing days to property owners and residents, many of whom have lived for decades with the din of traffic, rumbling trucks, and debris, including hubcaps and pieces of tire that occasionally fly into their yards.
Along Anthony Avenue, people with homes directly against the freeway rarely use their backyards. Some have raised the height of their fences, installed double-paned windows, or added rooms as a buffer. Many people sleep with earplugs or keep their windows and doors closed all year.
At rush hour, the highway sounds like a freight train. Normal conversation has to be so loud, it sounds like neighbors are arguing instead of socializing. Even at midday, the sound of cars on the freeway is hard to ignore.
"After 30 years, I'm happy," said Irene Alex, who moved into the neighborhood in 1963, shortly before the freeway was built. "For years, I wrote letters and made phone calls. I eventually got disgusted with the whole thing and dropped out for a while."
Alex said her pleas to state and local officials were often ignored, or she would develop a rapport with a Caltrans official and then that person would retire or be reassigned, forcing her to start over.
Caltrans officials have maintained over the years that the Garden Grove Freeway was on a statewide priority list for sound walls, but ranked near the bottom and funding was limited.
"For budgetary and other reasons, things did not happen," Morales said. "The governor finally wanted to do something, and it is up to us to deliver quickly. We understand how important these walls are for the community."
Morales and a host of officials were to gather at Garden Grove City Hall today to discuss details of the sound wall plan. State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) and Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) were expected.
Dunn and Morales visited the freeway last year and toured the area by helicopter. The senator said he thought the visit helped spur the start of the walls, which will coincide with new car pool lanes and other highway improvements.
Caltrans officials said seven walls will be constructed along the Garden Grove Freeway from Valley View Street on the west to Euclid Avenue on the east. All are scheduled to be completed by December 2002.
The first barrier will be built on the north side of the freeway from Valley View to Springdale Street, which will parallel scores of homes along Anthony Avenue. Caltrans officials say the $2.8-million structure will be finished by February.
"I guess I won't believe it until I see the real evidence. I want some bricks and real digging out there," said Gergen, who has lived next to the freeway for almost 25 years.
She and her husband, Virgil, use their backyard only to store building materials or to hang wash on the clothesline because of the noise. They can't remember the last time they barbecued on their built-in brick grill and fireplace.
On Friday, Gergen pulled out a small decibel meter she and her husband bought to take readings around the neighborhood. She said they obtained levels as high as 70 to 80 decibels in their yard.
According to Caltrans, 66 is the maximum decibel level considered safe for most people living near a freeway.
Gergen tried to turn on the meter. Nothing happened. "The batteries must be dead," she said. "Maybe I don't need this any more."
More than a year ago, Naranjo, her neighbor, organized an effort to hang protest banners along the freeway, painted on blue tarp.
"Caltrans kept telling me the walls would be built in three years. After a while, they lost their credibility," Naranjo said. "Since the banners, we have gotten plenty of response."