Northwest getting walls to quiet noisy Beltway


When Elaine O'Mansky moved into her house off Greenspring Avenue 30 years ago, the Baltimore Beltway was only three years old and four lanes wide, and noise wasn't much of a problem.

"Who ever dreamed it was going to go to eight lanes?" said Mrs. O'Mansky, who recently installed double-pane storm windows to keep the noise down.

She and about 180 other homeowners along the northwestern Beltway will get some relief, thanks to $5 million worth of noise barriers that will be installed as the roadway is widened from six lanes to eight between Reisterstown Road and the Jones Falls Expressway.

The four-mile widening project will cost $50 million and take two to three years as part of a plan to eliminate traffic snarls and prepare for a projected 31 percent increase in traffic over the next 25 years.

The noise barriers, made of steel-reinforced concrete, will range from 1,400 feet to 3,000 feet in length. Each will protect 15 to 45 homes.

"The goal is to construct barriers and get them built earliest in the construction period to offer some protection against construction noise as well as daily traffic noise," said Charlie Adams, director of the Office of Environmental Design for the State Highway Administration.

Federal and state guidelines allow expenditures of up to $40,000 a house on noise barriers. As with interstate highway projects, the cost is split between the federal and state governments on an 80-20 basis.

The barriers will protect only seven of 12 communities in which homeowners had asked for relief. To qualify for barriers, the area must be noisy enough, and the homes close enough together to stay within the $40,000 a house limit. Also, engineers have to determine that a barrier would work.

Mrs. O'Mansky's house in the Eden Roc/Saxony Court development, just inside the Beltway, meets the criteria.

"Of course, we're delighted," said Mrs. O'Mansky, who can see the Beltway from her second-floor bedroom. "With them putting in two more lanes, you can imagine the additional increase in the noise."

But at least 18 homes in other developments that also are close to the Beltway won't get a barrier.

In some cases, the barriers wouldn't help because the homes are too far away from the highway. "The farther away you get from the wall, the less abatable the noise becomes," said Dick Harrison, a district engineer for the highway administration.

In other cases, the homes are so spread out that barriers would cost as much as $200,000 a house.

Herbert Kasoff's house on Grasty Road between the Beltway and Old Court Road didn't qualify because he and his neighbors live too far apart. A noise barrier for his development would cost about $125,000 a house.

"Because we don't have as many homes on a piece of property, why should the neighbors close to the Beltway be penalized, when the noise in the same?" he said. With a larger property, he argued, "We pay more taxes, and I think there has to be some more consideration for us."

But Mr. Harrison said the state's rules are reasonable and even generous by national standards. Most states set a limit of $20,000 to $25,000 a house, he said.

Highway officials said they are looking for ways to accommodate homeowners who don't qualify for noise barriers. If communities can find an alternative plan to cover the cost difference, the state would agree to pay its share, Mr. Harrison said.

In a similar case in Montgomery County, the county government put up the difference and residents reimbursed the county through a special tax over several years, he said.

About 50 local residents have asked for similar treatment, but it's unlikely to happen, said County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who represents Pikesville and Randallstown. "The bottom line is, it's not in the budget," he said.

He said he sympathizes with the homeowners and has asked the state if residents can get a $40,000 a house credit -- possibly administered by the county -- for less expensive noise abatement projects such as tree plantings. He said he is awaiting a response.

Some homeowners say they feel cheated. Ted Niederman moved to Grasty Road about five years ago, but only after a real estate agent told him noise barriers eventually would be installed.

"We're paying our taxes and we deserve them," he said. He said the noise outside his house -- akin to the roar of the ocean -- is not intolerable but he's worried about the impact on the long-term resale value of his home.

Mr. Harrison said he doesn't know if property values will be affected by the Beltway widening. "That's an intangible," he said.

Meanwhile, highway officials also have assured leaders of synagogues along the Beltway that construction noise and traffic dislocations from the project will be kept to a minimum during worship hours on Jewish holidays and on Friday night and Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

Stanley Minch, executive director of Chizuk Amuno Congregation at 8100 Stevenson Road, just outside the Beltway, said he's relieved.

"The only concern that we have is in terms of traffic, particularly on the high holidays," Mr. Minch said. "If for some reason parts of those lanes are blocked off, it's going to create a problem."

But officials have assured him "that the work schedule is going to be adjusted to conform with when the Sabbath occurs, and the high holidays, so we shouldn't have any problems," he said.

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