Neighbors Fight for Sound Walls

Neighbors Fight for Sound Walls

In Daniel Turbati’s neighborhood, along Chathams Ford Drive in Vienna, many children are not allowed to ride their bicycles any farther than their driveways. But Chathams Ford Drive is not a busy street. It is lined with eight single family homes on large lots. What makes the street dangerous, though, is the roadway that runs parallel, less than 100 feet from Chathams Ford Drive. That roadway is the Dulles Toll Road.

“It’s hard for kids to play out in front of their houses because of the noise,” Turbati said. “They have no perception of a car coming. Normally, for kids playing along the street, the noise gives you a warning. But with the Toll Road so close by, you can’t hear the cars. One-third of our property, our front yards, can’t be utilized because of the noise levels. But we pay taxes for the whole property.”

THE CHATHAMS FORD neighborhood, unlike most neighborhoods along the toll road, is not protected by a sound barrier wall. The houses in the neighborhood, located near where Beulah Road passes over the Toll Road, were built in the late 1990s after the Toll Road was already in place. Because sound walls were not part of the original development, the only possible way the government will build new walls is if they are part of a project to expand the Toll Road. The next project planned on the Toll Road is mass transit to the Dulles Airport. Chathams Ford neighbors are hoping they can convince transit officials to include a sound wall in their plans.

The Dulles Transit Draft Environmental Impact Statement outlines several alternatives for mass transit along the Dulles Toll Road and measures the environmental impact of systems like metrorail and bus rapid transit. In that study, sound levels along Chathams Ford Drive are measured at 63 decibels. This decibel level is approaching the mark at which noise abatement measures would be required. Even so, neighborhood residents have measured decibel levels much higher than 63.

“They picked one spot to do their measurements, at a house that is protected by a hill,” Turbati said.

Using an electronic sound level meter from Radio Shack, with an advertised 2 decibel margin of error, neighbors took noise measurements at four different houses throughout the day. Average decibel levels ranged from 68 to 72, with highs of 80 decibels.

“When I did the readings, whenever a metro bus would go by, the decibels would go up by 10,” Turbati said.

BUT EVEN THOUGH the noise levels in the Chathams Ford may be high, construction of the walls is not assured. Doug Miller, an environmental specialist with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), said neighborhoods are only eligible for sound wall protection from VDOT if those neighborhoods were established before the road was built. Because the Chathams Ford neighborhood was developed in the late 1990s, after the most recent lanes were added to the Dulles Toll Road, it is not currently eligible for a sound wall.

“Often it has to do with who got there first," Miller said. "If the neighborhood pre-exists the road, the development is eligible for sound wall protection. If the road was there first, and then the community came to the neighborhood, they are not eligible.”

If the Dulles Toll Road is widened any further, though, the neighborhood may become eligible for sound walls.

“When we widen the road we increase the amount of noise it creates," Miller said. "So when we do that we have to go back and do a new noise analysis.”

To be eligible for noise abatement structures, under Federal Highway Authority standards, sound levels must be projected to hit 67 decibels or to raise by 10 decibels within 20 to 25 years.

THERE ARE CURRENTLY no plans for Toll Road widening. But there are plans to build a transit system in the median of the Dulles Access Road. And so Chathams Ford neighbors are lobbying for the sound walls in conjunction with the new transit system, which will bring either extra buses or trains to the Dulles Access Road.

John Dittmeier, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's acting project manager on the Dulles Corridor Rapid Transit Project, said sound walls are planned immediately along the rail track, if built in the median of the Dulles Access Road. But these walls will not mitigate the automobile noise in the Chathams Ford neighborhood. Transit project officials from WMATA and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit are currently reviewing the possibility of building sound walls along the outside of the Dulles Toll Road.

"The communities do have valid noise concerns," Dittmeier said. "The project team ... will do a good faith review of the issues."

The neighbors predict that transit will bring even more noise to their neighborhood.

“Also, transit will run to midnight during the week and to 2 a.m. on weekends,” said resident J.P. Nicolais.

Nicolais spoke at the recent Dulles Rail public hearings, and said his neighborhood will take legal action, if necessary, to get the walls installed.

“We made some inquiries about getting a wall with [Del.] Jeannemarie Devolites [R-35] and she sent us to [Hunter Mill Supervisor] Cathy Hudgins," Nicolais said. "No one wants to deal with it. No one has come out to look.”

Calls to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, one of the organizations coordinating the Dulles transit project, were not returned by press time.