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March 09, 2009

Sound Barriers: A Waste of Money?

One and a half million dollars a mile. The cost of building a new lane on I-95? Hardly! That’s more like $20 million. No, “$1.5 million dollars a mile” would be the cost of building new sound barriers on that crowded highway, according to recent testimony by CDOT Commissioner Joseph Marie.

This won’t win me many friends among my neighbors in Darien, but I just don’t see that they should be asking the government to subsidize their peace and quiet. After all, most of them bought houses near the highway benefiting from speedy access to the roadway and should have known full-well that being that close would subject them to noise.

Do you have sympathy for those who buy homes near airport runways, then complain about the jets? Neither do I.

The first sections of what became I-95 were built in Darien in 1954, long before most current residents came to town. Sure, traffic has increased on I-95 over the years. We are well over the planned capacity of this interstate highway. But thinking the solution to highway noise is to create a walled concrete canyon through our coastal communities paid for by others, is just selfish and short-sighted.

I live about 1500 feet from I-95. On a quiet summer’s night I can hear the trucks as they whiz by at 70 mph, especially when they’re “Jake braking” (illegal in many states). And yes, there is a wooden sound barrier between me and the road which helps a bit. I try to think of the noise as like surf at the beach. But when shopping for my current home, I knew that highway noise was the price I would pay for being so near an on-ramp.

Some neighbors in my, and many other towns, want the state or Uncle Sam to build miles and miles of new sound barriers to cushion their karmic calm. But why should the few benefit at the expense of so many?

Can we really argue that someone in Tolland or Torrington should pay for sound barriers in Westport or Greenwich?

Sound-barriers seem to me to be wasted money. They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or solve congestion. Two miles of sound-barriers would buy a new M8 rail car on Metro-North, taking 100 passengers off the road. And sound-barriers are really sound-reflectors, not absorbers, just bouncing the sound off to bother others.
Consider these alternatives:

1) Sound-proof the homes. This has worked well for neighbors of big airports and is probably cheaper than sound-proofing entire neighborhoods. And insulation against noise also insulates against heat loss, saving energy.

2) Explore rubberized asphalt. Reduce the road noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”. Using this new road surface, some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise. Rubberized asphalt also reuses 12 million junked tires each year.

3) Pay for it yourself. Let neighborhood associations affected by road noise create special taxing zones to collect funds to build sound barriers they’ll benefit from, both with reduced noise and resulting increased home valuations.

Stamford / Darien state Senator Andrew McDonald points out a real contradiction in state and federal rules about new sound-barriers: they can only be built at taxpayer expense when the road in question is widened. Is that good public policy… to encourage bigger, wider roads carrying more traffic just to get “free” sound barriers? Clearly, we should be funding mass transit alternatives, not discussing the folly of adding a fourth lane to I-95.

I can think of any number of better places to spend federal dollars to improve mass transit than sound barriers. Can’t you?

1 comment:


I read with interest your recent commentary on the proposal to spend an estimated $1.5 million per mile to install Sound Barriers along I-95 in Darien. However, I think there are 3 factors affecting the determination of the reasonableness of the state’s proposal which your analysis did not address. Below I have described each of these 3 factors and explain why I believe they indicate that the proposal that the cost of construction of these barriers being borne by taxpayers is reasonable, equitable, and appropriate.

(1) The Town of Darien would receive additional property tax revenue as a consequence of the installation of the Sound Barriers.
This additional tax revenue would accrue to the town as a result of the increase in property values for properties along I-95 in Darien affected by construction of the barriers. The present value of these additional property tax revenues per mile for all future years should be compared to the $1.5 million estimated construction cost per mile to determine whether this expenditure pre mile by the State of Connecticut makes economic sense.

Assuming (conservatively) that the mil rate does not increase after 2018, and other things stay the same, $93,680 per year is an estimate of the additional property tax revenue the Town of Darien would receive each year forever. This means that the Town would be the beneficiary of payments from an annual perpetuity of $93,680 per year. If the mil rate continues to climb after the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the additional property tax revenue generated by construction of the barriers would also increase.

The additional tax revenue achieved through construction of the barriers would go to Darien, not the State or Federal Government, but that additional revenue for Darien would reduce that town’s dependence on financial support from the State and/or Federal Government by an amount at least equal to the cost of the barriers. Consequently, people residing in other areas of the State or Country (considering present & future generations) would not be financially supporting the State’s expenditure for these sound barriers.

I would also suggest that while a portion of the estimated additional property tax revenue could be realized through sound-proofing of homes, it would be far less than that resulting from construction of the sound barriers, because the level of road noise experienced by people when they are outside on their property or when windows and/or doors are open would not be reduced by the sound-proofing. Additionally, I don’t believe sound-proofing would eliminate vibrations as much as the sound-barriers would. I suggest that more tax revenue would still be lost implementing sound-proofing than the cost saving achieved from eliminating the cost of construction of sound barriers.

(2) Separately from the issue of additional property tax revenue, the fact that people in other areas of the state or country would be paying for construction of barriers from which they will derive no personal benefit is not a valid argument against the State/Federal Government spending money to do so.
As a resident of my town, my tax dollars go to pay for all kinds of construction in other areas of the State and Country from which I will derive no personal benefit. That’s the way operation of a federal/state tax system or any tax system works.

(3) The State of Connecticut and the Federal Government owe the Town of Darien for loss of property tax revenue.
In the 1950’s The Town of Darien was forced by the Federal Government and the State of Connecticut to forego the (future) property tax revenues in my calculation when the decision to construct
I-95 was made. It seems reasonable that it’s now time for some pay-back. And my calculation doesn’t include the present value of some 50+ years of lost property tax revenue for the Town of Darien.

I would be interested in your thoughts on my comments.

Best regards,

Jonathan Smith