Growing sentiment against highway noise prompted the state legislature to pass House Bill 107 in the early nineties, appropriating funds for concrete noise wall construction. Parallel noise walls were built along Route #8, separating Cuyahoga Falls and Silver Lake, just to the north of Akron, during the mid-nineties. Upon completion public uproar claimed the highway noise was louder and more far-reaching than before the walls. Decibel readings also corroborated that the noise was more intense near the ends of the walls than prior to construction, and reached much farther into the community than before. The “tunnel”, as it was now called between the parallel walls, acted like a megaphone, with noise reverberating from the time a vehicle entered, until it left, over a mile. In effect the noise was now louder and longer in duration. Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) officials decided to retrofit a sounddeadening device to prevent noise reflection into Silver Lake. After installation of the perforated metal skin, backed by 3-4 inches of fiberglass insulation, another community survey and decibel reading was commissioned by ODOT. Results of the community survey were fairly clear. While a few houses directly behind the wall saw some reduced noise levels, so said the instruments, noise farther from the walls had lives disrupted more by highway noise subsequent to construction. To make matters worse, within three to four years the metal skin on the “diaper” (deadening device) had began to rust. In excess of half a million for that alone, the metal skin will need repairs, removal or covering with vines.
Fairlawn, another berg abutting to the west of Akron, had walls built at this time as well. These, too, were neither aesthetically endearing nor without problems. Some sections are settling, presenting a non-level appearance and some were placed within three feet of the Jersey Barrier at the shoulder, preventing clean snow removal operations. All this prompted Akron’s mayor, Don Plusquellic, to ban the walls within the City, even at the risk of losing millions in noise wall appropriations
Engineer Michael Teodecki was asked to find a solution to the noise wall problem. When I was asked to assist, two proposals were created utilizing earth mounding and plant material. Ironically, the very language of House Bill 107 required that “at the public hearings”, the director or the director’s designee shall present the design options available for the proposed sound barrier, including, when physically possible, at least one design consisting of natural barriers such as trees, shrubs, mounds, and other similar elements.” That fact was and still is ignored and ODOT refused to fund the project. ODOT, in a wall building mode, was of the opinion that mounds and trees 70’-80’ wide wouldn’t reduce noise and might set a dangerous precedent. Even the landscape architects fought us, objecting to tighter than normal plant spacing that would not allow trees to grow into specimens. All too true, they would become a mass planting to better buffer sound waves.
Four years later, after letter writing, lobbying and cajoling, enhancement funding was secured for the north half of the plan, called Phase I. The effort had to wait for a change of both Governors and ODOT Directors. The name had to be changed from anything resembling noise attenuation, and had to be billed as a landscape demonstration project. To be sure there isn’t always room to do mounding and plantings, and heavy salting in some locations could preclude a green solution, but why not, where it is possible?
Administration (FHWA) Noise Abatement Criterion (NAC) is a worst hour outdoor, 1-hour average sound level of 67 decibels (dB). Average readings of 67.7-68.3 dB qualified the area along Russell Avenue, but the highest figures were 84.3-88.1 dB. To understand decibel scales it is helpful to know that a change of 5dB is perceptible to the ear, while a reduction of 10 dB amounts to reducing the sound by one half! The Route #8 walls never approached a reduction of 5 dB. We are expecting our solution to reduce initial highway noise by 3 to 6 dB, to below the NAC standard, with additional amelioration as the trees increase in height and density. Also, since vegetation will be thicker to noise emanating from a distance down the highway to any house along Russell Ave., the unwanted sound should also be shortened in duration, unlike the “tunnel effect” of Route #8.
Plants used for the project are, from Russell toward the expressway, Thornless Cockspur Hawthorn, Prairie Sky Poplar Austrian Pine, more Cockspur Thorn, (all this on top of the mound) Fragrant Sumac (on the cut slope), flanked on the bottom by Black Eyed Susans and Daffodils. The shoulder will be planted with Birdsfoot Trefoil and a nurse grass. Ottawa Forsythia will be used adjacent to the intersection of Princeton and Russell to preserve site distance. The length of the project is one half mile, but the magnitude is hard to grasp without mentioning that when both phases are complete more then 10,000 Black Eyed Susans and 20,000 Daffodils will be planted. A Maxicom, remote controlled, drip irrigation system is also included. Once the command center is installed, virtually all our systems around Akron will be brought on-line.
The price tag for phase I will be just over a half million, while phase II will push to eight hundred thousand. How does this square with the cost of walls? ODOT is restricted to $25,000 per property, or about $1,000,000 per mile for wall construction. With the life of the wall approximately 20 to 30 years, with some maintenance, replacement would be necessary at presumably much higher cost. By contrast, where mounds are used, only the cost of plant replacement will be required in perhaps 20 to 30 years. Initial cost, then, is compatible with wall construction. One thing is certain though; this solution proves to be truly aesthetically pleasing, and somewhat quieter. Only time will tell how much. It is our desire that both the neighborhood and travelers can benefit from this different kind of project. A replacement street tree effort will also be pursued along each street, to help revitalize the neighborhood.
With Phase I under way, the results should be available in June or July. Decibel readings will be commissioned immediately upon completion, then perhaps yearly to determine future noise reduction as the plants mature. For more information, contact Bill Hahn at (330) 375-2373. The author issues a challenge to communities, DOTs and individuals to seek green solutions to similar problems. Viva la Verde! Do something unique!