Virginia Jamison's backyard is big, expertly landscaped and full of shade trees.
In fact, the yard would be perfect — if it didn't always sound like there was a freight train running through it.
Jamison lives in Northwood Estates in North Charleston, about 80 feet from the westbound lanes of Interstate 26. When she moved there in 1985, the noise wasn't so bad — there were more trees, fewer cars.
In 1997, a study said the noise in the neighborhood ran between 74 and 80 decibels, well above federally acceptable levels (which are in the 60s). At that time, they were two-tenths of a decibel away from a law kicking in that required some sort of abatement.
That means a sound barrier.
Since then, I-26 has gotten bigger, and the noise has gotten worse but nothing's happened. Almost no one has listened to them — or maybe they just can't hear them over the roar of tractor-trailer rigs.
The city says it's a state issue, which it is, but the Department of Transportation says it has no money, which it doesn't. Jamison's neighbors even asked the governor, who told them to talk to the DOT. It's been a vicious, callous circle.
“We don't want special treatment, we just want what's right,” Jamison says. “We'd settle for dirt and bushes.”
On Friday afternoon, Jamison finally got some good news: Charleston County will pay for a new noise study, in hopes of spurring the state into action.
Too bad you can't count on the state for much of anything.
One big first step
County Councilman Elliott Summey secured the money for the study.
Council had already approved a package for preliminary work on the Airport Area Roads Improvement project, and County Administrator Kurt Taylor agreed with Summey that the noise study was an appropriate use of some of those funds.
After all, there's going to be a new interstate interchange within a couple of miles of Northwood Estates. And that means more noise.
The bad news is that the study, which will cost around $50,000, is just the first step — it will only prove there is a problem. But armed with that evidence, the county hopes to lean on the state to do the right thing. The ultimate fix, likely a wall, could cost up to $3 or $4 million.
“We're going to find a way to get it done,” Summey says.
Good luck with that, because the state isn't real interested in hearing this particular noise.
Summey had a study funded years ago, but DOT said he couldn't use that particular money and nixed it. Some locals believe the DOT just plain doesn't want a new study, because then they'd be on the hook to fix this problem.
That makes sense. The state DOT has $30 billion of road improvement needs, and the Legislature — playing to tea party politics — refused just last week to give some of the state's surplus to roads.
In recent years, Charleston County had to put up its own sound barriers on Glenn McConnell Parkway, and Dorchester County and Mount Pleasant had to do the same using local sales tax money — even though all of these projects are on state roads.
That's just wrong.
A law, not a suggestion
State Rep. William Crosby — Summey's uncle, by the way — is one of the few politicians the folks in Northwood Estates say has listened to them and tried to help.
He's been annoying the DOT about this for two years, not only because these are his constituents, but because he thinks the state is dead wrong. Federal guidelines on acceptable noise levels are not mere suggestions.
“If it's in the federal regulations, and they use federal money, they are supposed to do it,” Crosby says. “But until now they have refused to do it.”
DOT officials said Friday they will be happy to review the results of the county's noise study. But they point out that there is a long list of projects on the backlog — and they fall $2 billion farther behind every year.
That's unfortunate, but ignoring the need for sound walls may go beyond bureaucratic red tape and budget constraints.
It may be breaking federal law.
So for now, the county has stepped up admirably.
The question is: Will the state do the same, or will the people in Northwood Estates just have to listen to more noise?
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org