If a fence falls along I-70, does it create a sound?
Residents who live along the corridor say it certainly does, as the roaring of engines and freighter traffic is amplified without a sufficient buffer.
For local resident Jamie Runko, who lives just a few doors down from the panels along West 48th Avenue between Tennyson and Federal Boulevard, the issues with the sound barrier are more than just noise.
“We’ve seen actual cars go through the wall on I-70 down to 48th Avenue where people walk,” Runko told The Denver North Star. “In addition to that, it’s not effective because the panels are not made of a sustainable material.”
From Pecos Street to I-76, the tattered wooden fencing that blocks out noise from homes has fallen in some sections, with the 5,500-foot section between Tennyson to Lowell earmarked as having the most need for repairs, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, which maintains the highway’s right of way.
“Not only does their dilapidated aesthetic create a sense of indignity for our community, but they are a legitimate safety concern,” said Jason Hornyak, a representative of the Chaffee Park Neighborhood Association. “Pieces of the wall have fallen directly onto 48th Avenue, creating a road hazard in our neighborhood, and the extremely lackadaisical approach to replacing the holes in the wall creates extremely dangerous situations for the highway itself.”
CDOT received about $134 million from the American Recovery Plan Act, and it plans to use $9.7 million to make repairs along that section of I-70, replacing dilapidated wooden fencing. However, that phase will cover just more than a mile between Tennyson Street and Lowell Street.
“Currently, the project is being designed, with completion of the design phase scheduled for this summer and construction beginning in fall of 2021,” said Tamara Rollison, a spokesperson for CDOT. “The timber noise walls will be replaced with concrete panel walls, which is a stronger and more durable material that will provide improved sound mitigation for residents and businesses along the highway.”
Rollison said the replacement of other sections of noise wall will happen in six phases as CDOT seeks more funding.
“In the meantime, if a section of timber noise wall outside of the area between Tennyson and Lowell is in need of repair, CDOT’s maintenance team will make repairs via a chain link fence,” she said.
It is unclear where CDOT intends to get the funding for the next phases of the project and which phases will come next.
“The walls specifically addressed by these funds are nearing 50 years in age and have lost their ability to effectively reduce noise as well as support air quality and other environmental conditions,” according to a description from CDOT’s list of COVID-19 stimulus funding.
There is no state or federal law that requires agencies to reduce noise produced by highways below a certain level, but CDOT’s website states highway traffic ranges from about 70 to 80 decibels at a distance of 50 feet.
“These levels affect a majority of people, interrupting concentration, increasing heart rates, or limiting the ability to carry on a conversation,” according to the CDOT website. “The noise generated by a conversation between two people standing 1 meter (3 feet) apart is usually in the range of 60-65 (decibels a-weighted).”
Runko recently purchased a decibel meter to track how loud the noises from the highway can get. When The Denver North Star went to view her readings from her home, the noise levels were about 77 to 85 decibels, which spiked to 95 at times.
Most of the higher readings came when semi trucks applied compression brakes, which can cause some of the loudest noises.
Eric Heinz is a freelance journalist based in Denver who most recently covered Los Angeles City Hall for City News Service.