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They've Made a Lot of Noise to End the Din : Freeways: A woman and her neighbors have waged an eight-year campaign to get Caltrans to build a sound barrier. Success still eludes them.

December 15, 1991|SHAWN DOHERTY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Betty Brough has traveled a long road in her battle to get the state to build a noise barrier between her home and the roaring San Diego Freeway a stone's throw away.

But so far success has eluded Brough and her neighbors, who live on a half-mile stretch of Tuller Avenue between Venice and Palms boulevards.

In eight years of telephoning, petitioning, letter-writing and other forms of lobbying, including an ill-fated visit to City Hall, the housewife and her allies have been unable to get the sound wall built--even though Caltrans officials have tested Brough's property and found noise levels to be the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner or lawn mower from 30 meters away.

Bill Minter, sound wall project manager for the Los Angeles district office of Caltrans, said many residents have even more pressing noise complaints. The state is obliged by law to build Brough a sound wall, since her home existed before the freeway opened between 1959 and 1960. But the project is No. 202 on a priority list of 240 sound walls awaiting construction across the state. Many of the projects are not scheduled to begin until the next century.

It might seem, in these loud times, that sound walls should border urban highways as commonly as telephone poles once lined old country roads.

But until the 1960s, highway officials said that noise from the growing web of highways could be muffled by clever landscaping.

"It didn't work out that way," Minter conceded.

Today, noise problems are the biggest cause for complaints to the state Department of Transportation. Minter gets many of them.

"Oh my Lord, yes, " he said. "People even invite me over to spend the night to see how bad it is."

Minter already knows first-hand that traffic can keep a person awake. He and his wife lived in Eagle Rock when the Ventura Freeway was laid down 700 feet from their home.

"I would have loved to have set up a bazooka or an antitank gun," he said.

Instead, the Minters moved. So Minter sympathizes with Brough.

"I feel for her," he said. "I wouldn't want to live there."

Whereas her neighbors have garages that block some sound--one reason the neighborhood is a low priority on Caltrans' list--Brough sleeps with earplugs to muffle the din of the freeway 30 feet away, which, with 268,000 vehicles a day, is one of the busiest in the country.

During the day, she plays the radio or the TV set. Her grandchildren refuse to play in the back yard--the noise hurts their ears--and the Broughs' barbecue and picnic table are unused. Even on hot afternoons she keeps windows shut.

The problem has transformed Brough into a activist. She has sent scores of letters and neighborhood petitions to officeholders, and called everybody from the mayor's office to sound engineers.

On trips across the state, she hops out of the car whenever she sees a noise barrier to snap a picture of it. She has photos of sound walls erected behind barns, abandoned warehouses and other lightly populated sites. She also has clipped newspaper articles about lawmakers pulling strings to get noise barriers built--all to document her argument that despite Caltrans' formula for determining a project's priority, there is little logic and less fairness to which projects get built first.

"We're being discriminated against here. It's all just who you know," she contended.

She says the low point of her civic education came when she and her husband went to City Hall to explain their plight to the City Council. Most of the council members kept talking while she was at the podium, she says.

"Rudest people I've ever met," said her husband, Ed.

The Broughs said the highway would be a problem even if they were deaf. Ed said that every year he patches cracks in walls made by sound vibrations. Every six months the Broughs clean their home's back wall of grime they say comes from the freeway. Soot leaves dust on the furniture and blackens photos of the grandchildren.

House sales on the block are sluggish because of the noise. (Although one recent buyer actually liked the hum of traffic because it reminded him of the ocean.)

A few years ago, a neighbor says, she had to call the Fire Department when a Volkswagen exploded on the freeway. Within minutes, flames had jumped the shrubbery to burn the family car and almost her home.

Despite such tales, California is a "pioneer" in sound wall construction, building nearly 40% of the country's sound walls, says Robert Armstrong, a sound engineer in the Washington headquarters of the Federal Highway Patrol. By 1990, the state had built 242 miles of noise barriers--much of it in the Los Angeles area. Minnesota came in second with a mere 56 miles of walls. California also has taken the lead in experimenting with using Styrofoam blocks instead of the traditional and costly concrete walls.

But by the state's own count, it has at least 200 more miles of noise barriers to build, at a cost of more than $1 million per mile. Money from Proposition 111, the so-called gas-tax highway bill approved in 1990, means that Brough's wall might finally be included in the 1994 budget, Minter says.

But, at the earliest, the wall still won't be built before 2001. Betty Brough says that's too long to wait.

"I may not be around by then," she said. "I guess I'll just have to keep on fighting."

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