Antinoise barriers do the job, but at an aesthetic cost

They've been called ugly, monotonous, and a number of other derogatory terms. Objectively, they're known as sound barriers. And they're springing up around the nation in response to the antinoise-pollution movement that has grown since the late 1960s.

An estimated 15 to 20 states already have built, or are building, sound barriers, according to Ron Evers, a Federal Highway Administration engineer.

There are no complaints about the effectiveness of the barriers. They have cut in half the amount of traffic noise residents hear. On average, transportation officials report a noise-level drop from a rumbling 70 decibels (on the A scale) to a relatively calm 60 decibels.

However, in solving the noise problem, some barriers have scarred the countryside, thus creating another problem.

"They're ugly," states Mary Ann Hauser of Tolland, Conn.

The rolling-hills view behind her home has been replaced by one of five concrete barriers already built along Interstate 86. Each barrier looms 12 feet high and more than 1,000 feet long.

"I heard they were going to plant ivy or something at the wall. All you can see there now is weeds," complains Earl Day, another Connecticut resident with a barrier behind his house.

Further, the gray slabs offer a convenient canvas for graffiti artists who daub paint on them with abandon.

"States aren't always aware of the importance of barrier aesthetics," he remarks, adding, "If barriers are unattractive, people don't appreciate their effectiveness."

Interviews with residents along I-86 substantiate this. The residents most disgruntled with the poor appearances of the barriers also felt the barriers were ineffective.

The states are well aware of the criticism.

Richard Linneman, head of the planning and research bureau of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, says the state has learned much in the last few years about improving the appearances of its barriers. He cites a concrete barrier built on I-84 in West Hartford as proof. Students from the University of Hartford created a textured pattern on it, designed to make the barrier more attractive when viewed at highway speed.

Minnesota, a pioneer in sound barriers, considers aesthetics integral to its program. Transportation officials there boast of a concrete barrier built near a lake and designed to blend with the environment. On the beach side are paintings of a sailboat, diver, and swimmer. On the highway side a diagonal graphic design in varying shades of brown serves to diminish the appearance of height.

In Pennsylvania a barrier along I-95 in Philadelphia incorporates a rising sun with spreading rays in the face of the wall.

In California, the state with the largest number of barriers already built -- some 70 miles -- many barriers have varying surface textures to break up the monotonous gray appearance.

Although concrete is frequently used to build barriers, it is not the most aesthetically pleasing. Many states have built wood and earth-berm barriers as alternatives.

Inevitably, the bottom line in building beautiful barriers is the added cost. The federal government provides states with 90 percent of the cost for all barriers on interstate routes and new highways. On state highways, by contrast, 70 percent of the cost is federally funded.

In any case, the remaining funds are often hard to come by. Transportation departments throughout the country are plagued by a steady loss of revenue. Traditional revenue sources, such as motor-vehicle and gasoline taxes have not kept up with inflation. Conservation efforts by drivers have further reduced the money available. Yet, despite the revenue loss, barriers are still a priority in many states.

"Only a small percentage of the barriers have been built compared to what you'll be seeing in the next five to 10 years," predicts Fred Romero, a research physicist for the federal office.

Seen against the backdrop of federal budget cuts this has an optimistic ring to it. The policy of specific funding for barriers on new interstates is slated for reform after 1983. At that time new barrier construction projects may have to compete with other transportation projects for a share of federal money. But until then, "the federal highway projects will roll on and barriers will be built with state and federal funds already appropriated," says El Angove, president of Fanwall Corporation, Framingham, Mass.

Part of the impetus behind the continued growth over the last few years is due to the Federal Highway Code, which requires states to estimate noise impact on surrounding communities when new highways are built. If the noise level is expected to reach 70 decibels or increase significantly over what it has been, barriers must be built.

Further demand for sound barriers has come from individuals and community noise-control organizations. Through lobbying and court action they seek protection from highway traffic noise. Court action in Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania has resulted in barriers being built. And, in at least one case, residents insisted on an aesthetically pleasing design.

Public support for barriers in Minnesota is so strong that in 1975 the state legislature designated a specific amount of the gasoline tax to fund barrier construction. The state also includes landscaping in the budgeted cost for each barrier.

The sound-barrier industry is aware of the need for eye-pleasing barriers, too.

"When we started in 1976," explains William Pickett of the Fanwall Corporation, "the sound barrier's appearance wasn't a major factor. In recent years we've been encouraged to give more attention to aesthetics."

To further that end, Fanwall has built a tinted transparent plastic barrier on I-95 in Baltimore and has several more on the drawingboard.

While industry develops more aesthetically pleasing barriers, researchers are trying to reduce the height of barriers while maintaining current noise-reduction standards. Various shapes are being tested, for example. Further, scientists are investigating the possibilities of barriers made of materials that absorb noise. Current barriers are almost exclusively made of materials which reflect sound. Such research may produce a new barrier design of a less obtrusive or less objectionable nature.

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