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Sounding Off on Noise

Freeways' neighbors struggle to drown out road racket. Experts say the din creates mental and physical hazards.

April 20, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Property Values Suffer

Traffic noise can fray property values as well as nerves.

A 1996 study by two professors from UC Davis found that traffic noise in the United States has reduced property values in 377 urban areas by about $5 billion. The study, by Mark Delucchi and Shi-Ling Hsu, did not estimate the loss of property value in Los Angeles County specifically, but it did estimate that more than 388,000 homes in the county are close enough to freeways to lose value because of traffic noise.

In South Gate, Ruben Ortiz, a retired mechanical engineer, added a layer of drywall to the back of his mobile home to cut the noise from the Long Beach Freeway, a heavily rutted and worn route that carries thousands of big-rig trucks each day to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. A two-lane frontage road and a rusty chain-link fence are all that separate his home in the Thunderbird Villa Mobile Home Community from the freeway.

But Ortiz said the drywall does nothing to quiet the loud rumbles that occasionally jolt him and his wife out of bed when a truck strikes a rut or a pothole.

"It's all of a sudden: 'Kaboom, boom, boom,' " he said. "It's too close for comfort."

According to federal noise experts, the severity of freeway noise can vary with the speed of traffic, the mixture of vehicles and the condition of the road.

Older, rutted and pothole-strewn highways such as the Long Beach Freeway typically generate more noise than newer, well-maintained roads.

A study last year concluded that California ranked at the bottom of all 50 states in roadway quality. That is a drop from 47th place in 2001. The study by Transportation California, a coalition of road builders, labor unions and gravel suppliers, found that 37% of state and local roads were in poor condition.

Big-rig trucks are a growing source of freeway noise. An 18-wheeler traveling at 55 mph can be as loud as 28 passenger cars traveling at the same speed, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

In 1990, trucks represented 5% of all freeway traffic in Southern California. By 2000, that number had jumped to 11%, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

In Southern California, those trucks are now part of a peak commute period that has more than tripled in length. There was a time when the rush hour was exactly that -- an hour between 7 and 8 a.m. and another between 4 and 5 p.m. Today, Caltrans says, the peak traffic periods are from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 3 to 7 p.m.

Dense Sprawl

Aggravating the problem is the trend among home builders in Southern California to squeeze more houses onto tiny lots next to increasingly noisy freeways. Although sprawl is a defining characteristic of Southern California, planners say high real estate prices have made urban communities, such as downtown Los Angeles, among the most densely populated in the nation.

"We are now building on any scrap of land we can find," said William Fulton, a land-use planner and author of books about growth in California. "We have backyards facing freeway onramps. That doesn't happen in other parts of the country."

To reduce the effects of freeway noise, Blomberg and other anti-noise activists suggest that planning agencies limit residential development near freeways. They also call for federal requirements to make new trucks quieter. Some communities have prohibited truck drivers from using engine compression to brake, a technique that reduces brake wear but can create more noise.

In Phoenix, state workers recently began paving 115 miles of freeway with "rubberized asphalt," a blend of pulverized rubber and asphalt that has been shown in tests to reduce traffic noise by four to nine decibels. The Federal Highway Administration has yet to recognize rubberized asphalt as a noise-reducing alternative.

Jay Winderman, an electrical engineer who lives in Claremont with his wife and two daughters, just two blocks from the new section of the Foothill Freeway, said he would like the state to try rubberized asphalt -- anything to reduce the daily freeway racket that he compares with the sound of a sandblasting machine. He has already installed double-pane windows and even crafted a Styrofoam cover for his back bedroom window.

"The day the freeway opened to traffic," he said, "was such a jolt that my wife literally cried."

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Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.

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