The residential fringes along Los Angeles County's freeways are rapidly turning into noisy political battlegrounds.
From Sepulveda to Duarte and Westwood to North Long Beach, homeowners along older freeways are demanding that the state erect cinder-block sound walls to reduce the gear-grinding din outside their windows.
But the state Legislature has turned a deaf ear to the 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 figure to dwindle to nothing by 1988.
100 Projects Wait
They estimate, however, that 100 county sound-wall projects along older freeways are waiting for funding. Those sound walls, which would stretch for a total of 125 miles, would cost $132 million. Statewide, planners have pinpointed 237 projects that would cost $209 million and cover 200 miles.
The shortage of funds has prompted several legislative squabbles over which districts will get sound walls.
The clamor for sound walls rose in the early 1970s, after Congress required that noise be reduced along new interstate highways and major reconstruction projects. Congress agreed that the federal government would pay the lion's share of the noise-reduction costs. 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: "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."
As people living in pockets next to freeways began to protest the rising noise, the state set aside 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 under former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., said sound walls "didn't become politically acknowledged until people in neighborhoods with more money got involved."
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 hit hard 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," said 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, which is supported by the commission, is that the state's highest priority should be fixing potholes and maintaining highways, followed by improving safety, relieving congestion, building new freeways and, last, landscaping, cleaning up and building sound walls on 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 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. Bill 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. Under federal noise standards, Caltrans must show that the noise along the highway reaches at least 67 decibels, as loud as a vacuum cleaner or traffic on a busy downtown street.