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If Only They Had Asked Me (Part 2)

I’m still on recess from anything important, so here’s my next trivial wondering: What is it with these massive highway “sound barriers” that deface our landscape?

I’m talking about beauties like this one, that cost $1,000,000 per mile to build. We taxpayers have now spent some $6,000,000,000 (that’s pronounced “six billion dollars”) on them, and I’m wondering why. Like, why are they really there? And at what cost? And for what benefit?

If you look closely at the pavement in the photo of this highway, you can see that it’s pretty rough. Guess what? THAT is the biggest culprit in the noise-pollution. For some years, we owned a little cabin in Bowdoinham, Maine, about a mile through the woods from I-95. We could hear the sizzle of truck tires through that mile of forest, because the pavement was so degraded and granular. After a few years, they repaved it with a smoother material and the noise disappeared completely. Now, that is infrastructure improvement.

So why do we spend (shudder) BILLIONS of dollars on these eyesores?

Well, one rationale might be that the people who live near the highways don’t like the noise. But I’m pretty sure that when the highways were first built, the adjacent land/home-owners were compensated for the negative effect on their property value. And any subsequent buyer would have bought the place cheap precisely because it was next to a noisy highway. So it doesn’t make any sense for the rest of us to spend our own money to improve their property value ex post facto, does it? Caveat emptor still rules.

Worse, from my point of view, is the recurring discovery that miles and miles of these eyesores are built where there are no houses anywhere in sight. Whose tender ears are we protecting, anyhow? The squirrels in the forests?

And even when there are houses, such barriers are effective in reducing sound for only about a hundred feet behind them…and so these houses are just barely benefitting. Besides, they were built and sold while obviously on a major highway, so again, let the buyer beware, okay?

Need proof? The Wisconsin DOT did some calculations:

Years of research show that the noise from engines, wind turbulence, and tires on pavement are the primary sources of highway noise. Electric propulsion and streamlining are reducing the first two, and better tire design and improved pavement can take care of the rest.

But some lobbyist somewhere is sitting up nights figuring out how to ensure that another zillion miles of these monstrosities are funded by the next appropriation of our tax money. We’d better make our voices heard in favor of more sensible use of the dough.

After all, Robert Frost certainly had it right:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

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Apr 03, 2022

Very interesting points, especially that last graph on noise barrier effectiveness. In many places, the wall might not even be necessary if that first 50 feet of maximum noise reduction could be replaced by dense forestry (either existing, cultivated anew, or a combination of both). In some cases there could be a delay in achieving the desired noise reduction initially, but ultimately the trees will be twice as high as the wall and are almost certain to be still more effective. (Of course there are additional pros and cons, but I wonder if this has ever been considered?) Richard Weed

Apr 03, 2022
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I agree with you, Richard. In addition, some trees are dramatically more effective at absorbing noise. I think that holly trees are the champion but haven’t checked that lately. 😎


I'm with you, I think the money would be much better spent on the roads. I'm not sure how it is there, but in my neck of the woods in CA the roads are often horrible, not only on vehicle suspension but on the knees and ankles as well!

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