Is That Right? What is the cost of silence?
CINCINNATI (WKRC) - Across the country, thousands of miles of massive walls line our highways and interstates, protecting people who live in nearby homes from the roar of road noise.
But there’s a steep price we all pay to protect these pockets of urban and suburban sections that line our roads and the level of noise isn’t as loud as you might think to trigger consideration for a wall.
In Butler County, a gigantic wall, averaging 16 feet in height, snakes along a six-mile section of Ohio-129.
It’s been there for nearly twenty years, protecting people from the roar of cars and trucks on the road.
But it didn’t come cheap. The noise barrier here cost nearly $9 million.
It’s just one of 147 sound walls that have been erected across Ohio, since the early 1970’s when the federal government passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which mandates abatement of highway traffic noise.
According to a list from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Ohio has spent $417,775,448 on sound walls and noise barriers, lining 232 miles of highways and interstates.
Ohio Department of Transportation says its list reveals the amount spent on sound walls is $375.6 million.
The average cost per mile for the walls is $1.8 million in Ohio.
Whatever the accurate figure, taxpayers are footing the bill to reach high enough along our highways to block sound.
“We do spend a lot of money on noise walls,” Tim Hill, ODOT’s Environmental Administrator conceded, adding, “but noise walls are an integral part of the highway system.
Indeed, the need for a noise wall is studied anytime an expansion or elevation is considered on the state’s highways and interstates and factored into the overall cost of the project.
While noise walls aren’t automatic, even in crowded urban and suburban corridors, the chances of getting one if the highway runs close to your home is fairly high.
ODOT crews are required to measure noise levels for every project, where homes line the highway. And the standard, which is set by the federal government, is clear. If the road noise 200 feet from the highway hits the threshold of 67 decibels, then ODOT must consider building a noise barrier, like sound walls.
To give you an idea how loud 67 decibels is, we checked everyday sound:
The sound emanating from your shower is only slightly higher, measuring on average 70 decibels.
When you flush your toilet, it registers 75 decibels.
Normal conversation is lower, at 60 decibels.
In a side by side comparison, Ohio far outspends its neighbors in the Tri-State, too.
According to the FHWA, Indiana spent $135.7 million on walls. That’s a third what Ohio did. And Kentucky spent $25.4 million on protecting homes from noise. That’s 7% of Ohio’s spending.
The reason? Ohio has more metropolitan areas, with urban and suburban encroachment. In the latter case, ODOT concedes developers often buy cheap land to build homes next to highways, which triggers mandatory consideration of sound walls.
“I wish I could change it,” Hill said, but he explained that transportation officials are powerless to stop the encroachment, since there is no mandatory buffer zone when houses crowd a corridor.
Right now, Hill and ODOT have been busy educating developers and communities about the benefit of buffer zones, set-backs and mounds to mitigate the noise, so money can be spent on roads.
Hill says the any savings on sound walls that hundreds of millions would be nice.
Duane Pohlman asked, “What could you do with $417,775,448?"
Hill replied, “I think that would fill a lot of potholes.”
ODOT is considering building cheaper noise barriers, like earthen berms, which the state says would save at least half the cost of the walls, while being more effective at stopping the noise. But finding enough room on the ground to place them in crowded corridors is often difficult.
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