Freeway Close

“It’s not for most people; I wouldn’t recommend it.” I asked Johnny and a selection of other freeway-side dwellers around San Diego County: With all the choices available in “America’s Finest City” (and outskirts), why the hell did you move here?

Johnny comes across as big-city, blue-collar, with a strong streak of intellectual curiosity and an articulate way of talking about his neighborhood and what it means to have an interstate cut right through its heart.So says Johnny — or “JohnnyCab” as he’s known via his email handle. He’s talking about his companion for 15 years, the freeway, specifically Interstate 5, at a spot just north of Little Italy. Who would voluntarily — knowingly — live right up against a pulsing, humming, fume-cloaked ribbon of concrete?

“I’ve always lived in urban areas; back in Chicago, I lived on Lakeside Drive — we called it ‘LSD.’ ” A big neighborhood guy, he is keenly aware of how his corner of town fits in with all the other places and ready to serve up a lively mini-lecture. “When the freeway was built in 1965, the area just north of here became a no-man’s land. It was already in the flight path of Lindbergh. Do you remember ‘Five Points’? It was a bustling intersection before the freeway came in.”

Johnny is also keenly aware of how, well, peculiar his neighborhood might seem to some. “It’s a dichotomy. Right behind me are million-dollar condos.” As for his place, a one-bedroom “apartment cottage,” Johnny freely admits it’s “funky.” It’s also cheap. He won’t reveal how cheap but says that he gets a “freeway discount,” with rent “well below the fair-market rate. I pay what I would for a place in the ’hood — [someplace] like University and 54th Street. And there was no credit check.” When I ask about the drawbacks, he says, “The ambient noise level is high, and there are little rubber particles in the road dust. Also, because it’s near the airport, I get a fine residue of jet fuel sprayed on my car.”

But the cabbie-cum-urban historian is undeterred. “I’m quite comfortable here. [Also] my brother — he’s a bartender — lives in one of the cottages in back of me.”

In addition to forming an island of (relatively) affordable shelter in San Diego’s high-rent seas, the 1940s-vintage cottages — a cluster set into a hill in a three-level array — are spaces where one can make a lot of noise. “In 1995 I was 27,” Johnny says. “It was a perfect fit for a young person; you could turn up your stereo all the way, do things most neighbors wouldn’t put up with.”

When it comes to freeway living, noise might be the first thing that comes to mind, but not every highway-side denizen has the same take on the topic. For some, it’s at worst a minor annoyance, hardly a blip on the aural radar screen. For others, it’s a major impediment to relaxation and recreation, not to mention conversation. Angel, who rents an apartment where the 15 freeway spits out motorists onto El Cajon Boulevard — Marlboro Avenue — says, “Before I moved here, I didn’t think twice about it, but once I got here, I realized how noisy it was. Cops are always pulling people over, and there are constant sirens.”

Like almost everything else, the health impact of noise has been the subject of studies, largely undertaken by governmental agencies. In 1999 the World Health Organization presented findings that suggested a correlation — albeit a weak one — between long-term noise exposure (levels of 67–70-plus decibels) and hypertension. More recent studies point to a similar link between nighttime noise over 50 decibels and increased risk of heart attack, the result of chronically elevated levels of the hormone cortisol. Generally speaking, it seems that (at least for the subset of the general population that is susceptible to vasoconstriction) the constant drone of freeway traffic — if loud enough — causes a rise in adrenaline levels, which in turn leads to a decrease in arterial blood flow. Long-term, annoying noise leads to stress, and with it, higher blood pressure. In addition, folks who’ve decided, for whatever reason, to be “freeway-close” end up suffering more fatigue, headaches, stomach ulcers, and vertigo.

But how close is too close? One way to gauge deleterious proximity to a freeway is to look at the locations where noise barriers have been erected or, if not actually built, requested by nearby residents. How does one go about getting a shield between one’s back yard (or front yard) and the roar of downshifting tractor-trailers? Unsurprisingly, there is a complex and numbingly bureaucratic relationship among the various federal, state, and local agencies responsible for building, improving, and maintaining freeways in San Diego County. The road to domestic tranquility is fraught with red tape and frustration.

To begin with, the feds don’t have a “number standard” — a decibel threshold — which mandates the installation of sound barriers. True, there are regulations in federal law contained under the rubric of a section entitled “Procedures for Abatement of Highway Traffic Noise and Construction Noise.” But as it happens, the specifics for barriers — set forth by the Federal Highway Administration — kick in only in cases where a state transportation department, such as the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), has requested funding for new or enlarged roadways.

For San Diegans and other inhabitants of the Freeway State who wish to knock down the decibels, Caltrans is the go-to agency. Without their OK, sounds emitted from the freeway next door, whether perceived as pleasant white noise or maddening anxiety-provokers, will go unabated. The key word here is abatement. No barrier, even the largest and most technically advanced, will blot out all, or even most, of the noise. Even so, you’ll have to wait not months but years, perhaps even a decade or more. There’s a labyrinthine process — what else would you expect for a government-run project?

If anyone can navigate the noise-weary through the red (and yellow) tape that surrounds the process, it’s Jayne Dowda, chief of engineering for Caltrans’ Environmental Division in the agency’s San Diego/Imperial branch. A longtime San Diegan with a wry sense of humor and an encyclopedic grasp of county road projects, Dowda knows noise abatement the way highway workers know orange cones. In order to get a freeway sound wall built, she says, there needs to be either a “capital project” underway or a “retrofit” scenario. These typically involve lane additions or widening; along with greater capacity comes more traffic — and more noise. If the projected decibel boost merits amelioration, Caltrans is in charge. Extant roadways can also obtain noise barriers; in these cases SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) is the lead agency, working within the framework of its “Noise Barrier Retrofit Policy,” approved in 2001.

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