Margery Ferguson says she knows she can't prove that her heart attack in March and her husband's high blood pressure were set off by the roaring of the San Diego Freeway 30 feet behind their Long Beach home.
But she believes her well-being may be improved by steps she has taken recently to install $2,000 worth of double-pane windows throughout her house and a six-foot-tall brick wall in the backyard. The improvements help, but only a little, to muffle the constant noise that has turned her once-peaceful neighborhood along Eagle Street into a troubled community.
Petition Drive Under Way
A petition drive is under way in the neighborhood just south of the freeway and north of Los Coyotes Diagonal. Residents, many of whom were there long before the freeway opened in the 1960s, say they are being driven inside their homes by the overpowering hum of traffic from the freeway and the busy Bellflower Boulevard off-ramp.
"It was such a gradual thing after the freeway opened," said Ferguson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. "But now it's come to the point that you scream at your husband and kids and grand-kids, and you begin to think you are unbearable."
Wall Heights Restricted
Many residents along Eagle Street and nearby streets north of the Los Coyotes Diagonal say they cannot use their yards. Some have attempted, in vain, to cut off the sound by building their own walls, which are limited to six feet in height by city ordinance.
Nevertheless, California Department of Transportation officials say the neighborhood does not meet the state's criteria for a protective sound wall to reduce the din.
Sound levels recorded by Caltrans do not quite reach the 67 decibels--about the level of a vacuum cleaner or loud conversation--required before the California Transportation Commission will consider an area for sound barrier construction funds.
"These people have a valid complaint--they all do--but they just don't qualify," said Bill Minter, director of Caltrans' sound wall program in the Los Angeles area.
"We'd like to do the right thing by these residents, give a sound wall to everybody who has complained," Minter said. "But I spend a lot of my time explaining to them why it can't be done."
Greater Needs Elsewhere
According to Minter, hundreds of communities across the state have been found to be in even greater need. Caltrans' statewide priority list includes about 240 neighborhoods. Since 1983, 25 other neighborhoods have received sound walls.
But residents in scores of other communities, who have noticed new sound barriers going up nearby, are increasingly demanding inclusion on the list.
Because sound wall funds are an extremely low priority in the Caltrans budget, communities at the bottom of the list face a wait of at least 25 years, Minter said; neighborhoods that are not even on the list have little hope of ever getting a sound barrier, he said.
"When I tell people at the end of the list how long it takes, they say to me, 'I'll be dead by the time we get a sound wall,' " Minter said. "Actually, that's about the size of it."
So Margery Ferguson and her neighbors are gearing up for a fight. They want to be included on the state priority list for funds, and they want all their elected officials to know it.
Appeal to Reagan
Neighbors hope to complete the petition drive soon and present their concerns to local legislators, Caltrans and the Long Beach City Council.
But June Gould, who started the campaign five years ago and has appealed to Gov. George Deukmejian, state Assemblyman Dennis Brown (R-Signal Hill) and even President Reagan for help, said nothing ever came of those requests.
"You can sit here and have your tea and feel as if you could reach out and touch the freeway," Gould said. When the police use bullhorns at night on the freeway, "you can't understand, for a minute, why there is a strange voice in your bedroom. Yet they tell us we don't qualify, that we'll have to wait another 30 years."
Gould and her husband built a six-foot wall nearly 15 years ago to battle the noise, but the wall was effective for only a short time as the freeway traffic increased steadily, she said.
"We were here long before the freeway, and now we just want it to be the way it was," she said.
Plagued by Soot
Residents said they are also plagued by fine, black soot that settles on their homes and cars, and by rats attracted by freeway litter and roadside brush.
"It's incredible how bad things have gotten," said Pat Thomas, one of several neighbors collecting signatures for the petition.
"During the rush hour, the noise is just ungodly, and in the summertime, you have to keep the windows closed."
Even three or four blocks from the freeway, where they have sought signatures, the traffic is loud and residents are willing to sign, he said.
But state officials insist they have to draw the line somewhere.
Minter said that in communities that do not qualify for a sound barrier in the foreseeable future cities can finance the walls themselves, then ask the state for reimbursement later. So far, few cities have been willing to finance the projects, which often cost millions of dollars.
Residents also can organize a tax assessment district to pay for sound walls themselves, but that is a concept that is largely untested and could be very expensive, Minter said.
Residents along Eagle Street said they may appeal to Long Beach leaders to finance a sound barrier, and they will monitor whether they get any action from elected officials.
"Come election time, we will be definitely bearing in mind what sort of reaction we get to this petition," Thomas said.
"We are a typical Long Beach neighborhood, and we've never asked for much from the city. But people are really pulling together now."