Norwalk resident Barbara Duncan complains that she hasn't gotten a good night's sleep in years, but she tries to look on the bright side of living 25 feet from a freeway on-ramp--she says she hasn't felt an earthquake in years.
"There isn't a straight picture hanging anywhere in this house," said Duncan, who lives on Cecilia Street, the dividing line between eastern Downey and northern Norwalk. "With all the shaking and vibrating going on when trucks rumble through here, we never know when an earthquake hits."
Like thousands of Southern California residents who live near a freeway, Duncan and her neighbors near Dollison Drive, which separates residents from the Santa Ana Freeway, have been waiting for years for the state Department of Transportation to build a sound wall in their neighborhood.
But when Caltrans notified Downey and Norwalk officials in May that the state could not afford to maintain the landscaping along Dollison and would be removing trees and shrubs--the only buffer between residents and the freeway except for a chain-link fence--Duncan and her neighbors quickly geared up for battle.
Duncan and Downey resident Patty Emerson wrote letters to their legislators and in August they presented their city councils with 503 signatures demanding that Caltrans build a sound wall in their neighborhood.
Their efforts finally paid off.
Last week, Downey joined forces with Norwalk, which in October agreed to pay for construction of a sound wall in that area and to hire an engineer to design the wall.
The half-mile wall will run from Florence Avenue in Downey to the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks in Norwalk. Officials from both cities estimate that about 400 homes will be affected. According to Harald Henriksen, Downey's city engineer, Dollison is the only section of Downey without a sound wall along the Santa Ana Freeway.
Construction costs for Norwalk are estimated at $1.55 million, which will be paid from general funds, according to Ken Montgomery, director of public works.
Costs for Downey are estimated at $275,000, but according to Henriksen, city officials have not decided how the project will be funded.
In the past, Caltrans has argued that plans to widen the freeway would require tearing the walls down in 8 to 10 years, but Norwalk officials said they plan to use precast concrete panels that can be easily moved.
Like more and more cities that are tired of waiting for their priority number to come up on Caltrans' long waiting list for sound walls, Norwalk and Downey have opted to pay for their wall and wait for reimbursement from Caltrans. Cities are reimbursed when they move to the top of the list, which could take anywhere from 10 to 30 years, according to Caltrans officials.
"I can't imagine having this wall built before mid-1988 even if Caltrans approves our plans, but it is a lot quicker than waiting for our priority number to come up," Montgomery said.
According to Sapish Chander, senior transportation engineer for Caltrans and adviser to the sound wall program, that stretch of Dollison, which turns into Orr and Day Road, is ranked 124th on a list of 200 areas waiting for sound walls. If the cities were not paying for the sound wall, he estimated, it would take about 10 years before Caltrans could do it.
Above Standard Noise Level
Chander said ranking depends on several factors, including the number of houses in the area and the sound level. The sound level must reach 67 decibels before sound wall construction is approved.
The roar along Dollison is about 78 decibels, well above the standard rate. But Chander said the number of houses around Dollison is small compared to other areas, placing it lower on the priority list.
But for Emerson and residents who have lived with the constant hum of traffic since the freeway was built in the early 1950s, the wait for a sound wall seems endless.
"I know things don't come real fast but we've been waiting so long," Emerson said. "I guess we'll just have to try and cope a little longer."
In the meantime, residents have found a variety of ways to cope with the noise.
'We'd Go Deaf'
"We just pack up the bird and the cat in our trailer and take off," Duncan shouted from her front steps. "No sense in staying around here all the time. We'd go deaf."
Cindy Farmer, who lives on the corner of Buell and Dollison, has tried a more practical approach.
Since Farmer and her family moved into their home nine years ago, they have insulated their walls, put in double-glazed windows and built a brick wall along one side of their house. When that didn't work, they put their house up for sale.
That was three years ago.
"We knew we'd never sell it when a Realtor was showing the house to some people and the house started shaking because of the traffic," Farmer explained. "He went into a panic and started shouting, 'Earthquake!' We never saw those people again."
Residents have also asked Caltrans to remove the southbound Cecilia Street on-ramp.
"A residential area is no place for a freeway on-ramp," Duncan said. "We have kids that walk to school every day through here. So far, we've had no major accidents, but it only takes one car."
Caltrans Studies Closure
Downey officials plan to send a letter to Caltrans this week, asking that the on-ramp be closed immediately, said Downey Councilman Randy Barb, whose district covers the area.
Caltrans is studying the possibility of closing the on-ramp, according to Larry Louden, a senior traffic engineer at Caltrans. But he said it would take months of environmental studies to determine the effects on traffic flow.
"We're not opposed to the idea of closing it," Louden said. "That ramp was built in the 1950s when we didn't have the advanced design techniques we have now. There is no reason for traffic like that to go through a residential neighborhood."