Noise from the interstate is loud now. According to John Jarchow of the Menlo Park neighborhood near Congress Street and I-10, ADOT studies show the sound emanating off the roadway almost always exceeds state standards of 64 decibels, a level which is like standing next to a constantly operating dishwasher. While the I-10 noise does sometimes fall below the federal figure of 67 decibels, or the continual ring of a telephone, even that could change shortly.
Early next year, ADOT will begin widening the roadway to eight lanes between Prince Road and 29th Street, a $122 million project, mostly federally-funded, expected to take 40 months to complete. When it is done, the sounds of tens of thousands of vehicles roaring past every day won't be music to the ears of nearby residents, nor possibly for those living in some of the new housing proposed for downtown's Rio Nuevo project.
"Who would want to buy a $500,000 house if you can't hear yourself talk on the patio?" wonders Lillian Lopez-Grant, president of the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association.
While one Rio Nuevo developer, along with an official from South Tucson, say they don't have concerns about noise from the widened interstate, supporters of the Tucson Origins project are worried. They fear the park, which will reconstruct the birthplace of the community along the banks of the Santa Cruz River near Congress Street, could become a haven for highway noise instead of historic contemplation.
"ADOT isn't addressing the current (noise) condition," Jarchow stresses, "and it's not going to get better. The people at ADOT are trying to do a public-relations job on this, but that's not playing well in the neighborhood. There is a lot of frustration."
Sally Stewart, public involvement director for the agency, replies that ADOT has been meeting with people and listening to their concerns. But, she is quick to point out, the budget for the upcoming widening was developed several years ago, with the plans for the project established then. Those plans call for installing no noise mitigation measures on the highway, an approach unsatisfactory to neighborhood residents and City Councilmember Jose Ibarra, who represents them.
"We've talked to ADOT about putting in a rubberized asphalt surface," Ibarra emphasizes. "It does more for noise reduction than anything else."
In frustration, Lopez-Grant remembers: "We got together with several other neighborhood associations and met with ADOT a couple of months ago. They blew us off, saying they had no money (for rubberized asphalt) and the plans for the project were made years ago."
Indicating rubberized asphalt wasn't a common surface when the widening was first proposed, Stewart says, and using the substance would increase the cost of the project by $3 million. Plus, she adds, the Federal Highway Administration considers rubberized asphalt an "experimental" surface and won't pay for its use in Tucson. Locally, ADOT engineers have serious technical reservations about the pavement.
Stewart also points out the department is not obligated to install sound mitigation when noise exceeds state standards. Its practice, however, is to study what types of steps can be taken to lower the noise by five decibels.
"We look at mitigation measures that decrease the noise," Stewart says, "but they must be achieved at a reasonable cost. That is defined as $35,000 per (business or home), and some motels and other uses along I-10 have asked us not to install sound-wall mitigation.
"In some spots along the highway, the noise levels may be above the standards. But unfortunately, we have to look at things realistically. We can't reduce the decibels (in this case) at a reasonable cost."
Not satisfied with that answer, Lopez-Grant and other neighborhood representatives went to talk with Bob Walkup. "The mayor said he'd discuss it with the governor," Lopez-Grant recalls. "Those bureaucrats at ADOT will listen then."
Andrew Greenhill, of the mayor's office, confirms Walkup will be talking with Gov. Janet Napolitano about this issue when they meet the first week in June. "Rubberized asphalt makes sense," Greenhill says.
Many folks in Tucson involved with the issue believe I-10 should have rubberized asphalt, because that is the road surface of choice for highways in Maricopa County.
"In Phoenix, ADOT uses rubberized asphalt on a consistent basis," Ibarra says, "but outside of Maricopa County, they don't use it as much. I can't understand why they don't offer it to anybody else."
Stewart explains that communities in Maricopa County decided to delay certain priority transportation projects in order to afford to have the rubberized surface installed on their highways. She also says that Phoenix is one of only two places in the country where the federal government pays for its use under a pilot program.
Stewart concludes that ADOT will inform the Pima Association of Governments in Tucson of the controversy, and if PAG decides to pay the extra cost, the conflict can be resolved. "Rubberized asphalt could be added toward the end of the project," she says. "There is enough time to address the issue."
But Greenhill replies that Mayor Walkup will ask the governor to have ADOT, not PAG, pay for the surface. "These road projects do have affects on adjacent neighborhoods," he says, "and using rubberized asphalt is the right thing to do."