Danville Express

Cover Story - January 12, 2007

Freeway frustration

I-680 neighbors search for solution to constant noise

by Natalie O'Neill

It's 5 a.m. and Joe Krutulis can't sleep. Wide awake, he tosses and turns in bed as humming engines and squealing tires echo from the freeway into his Alamo home.

The first signs of the pre-dawn rush hour have begun, and for Krutulis this means another sleepless morning.

As more Bay Area commuters use I-680 as a freeway route, Danville and Alamo residents like Krutulis are feeling stronger effects of noise pollution. And it isn't just taking a toll on the folks who live close to the freeway.

Sound from the major transportation artery reflects off sound barriers and travels up into the hills, aggravated residents say.

"What I'm concerned with is my quality of life," says Krutulis, whose son returned from college over the holidays and also couldn't sleep at night.

Whether it's a loud banging or a subtle but perpetual rumble, there is no denying the effects of noise on the human body and mind. Increased stress levels, raised blood pressure, the frequency of head and back aches, along with sleep deprivation are just some of the physical and psychological effects that noise can have on one's health.

"It really affects the psyche of a person," says Alina Roshal, who lives in the Creeks of Alamo neighborhood, one street removed from the freeway.

Even after years of living with the noise, it's not something residents can get used to.

Frustrated, Roshal has begun circulating a petition to support a change that she says will ease the constant freeway drone.

The petition supports the laying of new freeway material that absorbs some of the sound from cars. Rubberized asphalt, which is made partially of recycled "crumb rubber" from old tires, would be laid over the existing lanes from San Ramon through Alamo.

Rubberized asphalt costs slightly more than non-rubberized asphalt but is often more durable depending on weather conditions. The material can be bought for $37-$70 per ton.

If the I-680 project goes through, it would be the first large scale freeway improvement in the area in about 40 years. And residents who live near the freeway have jumped at the chance to at least partially reduce noise levels.

"We can't talk to our kids outside without yelling or raising our voice," says Alex Jauregui, who lives on Ranger Court in Alamo and says the sound clouds his senses.

Others point out that the new material benefits both people and the environment by decreasing sound and keeping old tires out of landfills.

Caltrans spokeswoman Lauren Wonder said last week that a project similar to what they are requesting is in the making. The $64 million project will patch 50- to 100-foot slabs, dips and cracks with rubberized asphalt on the 12-mile I-680 stretch from south county lines through San Ramon, Danville and Alamo to Rudgear Road, and is targeted for spring 2009. The project is focused on maintenance, not a solution to noise, as federal funding isn't provided for highway and freeway noise issues.

But those who live less than a mile from I-680 say spot-repairing the slabs just won't cut it. They want the all of the lanes covered with rubberized asphalt and attention given to sound complaints.

"It's like patching thread-bare pants. Why prolong something that has outlived itself?" Roshal says.

Wonder said the repaired freeway wouldn't reduce sound by any significant amount, pointing out that over time the pockets that absorb the sound fill up with dirt and dust from the cars.

"It's like pores on your face. Logically, over time the road will fill up with debris," she said.

Other areas that have used the rubberized pavement, including Colorado Springs, Oakland and Phoenix, have noticed noise decrease by 3-10 decibels. In Colorado Springs, the immediate effect was roughly equal to cutting in half the number of cars on the street. In 2004 the cost to pave I-880 in Oakland with rubberized asphalt was $1.8 million per mile.

When standing right next to the freeway, most busy routes are measured at about 70-90 decibels, close to the sound a stadium concert generates. With sound levels like that, Wonder said Caltrans didn't expect the noise reduction would be significant.

"People who are keenly aware of the freeway may notice an impact," she said, referring to the 2009 project.

Residents like Don Copland say they are indeed keenly aware of the "high pitched whining sound" heard on a daily basis. And other residents say the material would change the tone of the noise - which is equally important. They cited the strips of rubberized asphalt near the Caldecott Tunnel as an example of what they prefer.

"It's all about perception," Wonder said. "Some people think trees reduce sound but they don't by much - it's just peaceful to have green there."

Wonder said Caltrans has heard complaints about noise from the sound walls in the Alamo and Danville areas, but says she considers that issue separate from the rubberized asphalt project.

She added that Caltrans is in support of using the material because of environmental issues, not noise factors.

With the freeway becoming more heavily used, the issue is getting worse every year. Commuters leave earlier or stay later to beat the traffic, causing the peak noise time to be stretched out from 5-9 a.m. and to 4-7 p.m.

In the past year residents say the sound has gotten louder and is lasting for longer periods of time.

"It's gotten much worse. People are leaving earlier to beat the I-680 commute," says Krutulis.

Jauregui, who moved from San Francisco to live in a "garden community," points out this isn't what he expected from the semi-rural neighborhood he moved into.

"If a neighbor moved in and blared music on his speakers no one would put up with that. It's the same thing - a horrible nuisance," he says.

Other factors besides lifestyle and health are also playing a part in the petitioners' decision to say "out with the old" asphalt.

With the sound getting worse some property values are dropping, Realtors say. Copland, who is both a resident and a real estate agent in Alamo, says it's taken him six months to sell a house near the freeway - a house that five years ago would have been off the market in no time.

"They sell a lot slower; it takes a special person that's willing to take that house," Copland says.

Jauregui, who is also in real estate, says the noise pollution is bringing down the median property value in the area.

"Even if it just goes down by 1 percentage point that could be millions of dollars," he says.

County staff is currently working with the petitioners, acting as a liaison for concerned residents in communication with Caltrans. Many residents say they hope to get Alamo Improvement Association involved as well.

"Anything that improves the quality of life for (District 3 residents) is worthwhile," said Paige D'Angelo, Chief of Staff for the south county offices.

In Alamo and Danville, residents are saying that's exactly what the use of rubberized asphalt on the freeway would do - improve their lives on day-to-day basis.

"Wouldn't it be great to go down to Alamo Plaza and be able to hear a bird chirp?" says Jauregui.

To sign the petition or find out more information contract Alina Roshal at aroshal@sanramon.ca.gov.


Posted by Jim C., a resident of Walnut Creek
on Jun 22, 2010 at 12:03 am

Population growth is the ultimate culprit in growing levels of noise and general congestion. The real question is: WHY are their more cars on the road and/or longer commutes all the time?

Real estate agents and financiers, who make money from the expectation of endless growth, are as guilty as anyone in these NIMBY situations. And they tend to live in the very neighborhoods where nicer homes are being affected.

California has roughly 500,000 more residents per year and shows no signs of stabilizing until lack of water or power forces the issue. That's what should be focused on, not never-ending attempts at partial mitigation.

Posted by Jeff Carson, a resident of San Ramon
on Nov 5, 2011 at 10:54 pm

I agree that the noise is quite annoying. Our house backs teh I-680 freeway before Bollinger. The noise is just annoying. One of my kids gets irritated in the backyard.

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