The federal government is paying almost $7 million for an eight-mile-long sound barrier along the Capital Beltway that some Northern Virginians swear isn't "worth 2 cents."
The project-the largest of its kind ever undertaken by Virginia highway officials-is costing about $875,000 a mile.
When planned, highway officials were confident the new concrete, metal and wooden barriers that line the highway would muffle traffic noise from adjacent suburban neighborhoods.
The project is virtually complete and a growing number of Fairfax County residents are grousing that the barriers are ineffective. "I've lived here 14 years and there's no difference in the noise from before they [the barriers] went up to now," said Elizabeth Gryder, who lives in the Franconia section, near the I-95 section of the Beltway.
"They're not worth 2 cents," said Gryder, surveying the 10-foot-high metal barriers recently implanted along the Interstate Rte. 495 roadbed bar near her house.
In fact, Gryder, a confirmed Beltway traffic watcher-and listener-said, "The blue metal barrier has ruined my view. We've still got the noise but nothing to look at. We had no idea it would be like this."
State highway officials set out a year ago to dampen traffic noise at the same time they started to widen the Beltway to eight lanes. The barriers were intended to contain noise levels at an "acceptable limit of 70 decibels" after prebarrier levels reached 90 decibels in some neighborhoods.
As the project progressed, the highway department began to hear the sound of angry citizens' voices.
"If the people got a wooden barrier [near their homes], they want a concrete one. If they got concrete, they want a metal one, and if it's metal and it's been painted, they don't like the color," said Don Keith, resident engineer of the department's Fairfax substation.
The 10-to 18-foot barriers, part of a state noise control effort also planned for Interstate Rte. 66 inside the Beltway and along interstates in the Tidewater area and in Richmond, are designed to block and deflect traffic noise away from residential neighborhoods, according to A.C. Onday of the department's environmental quality section.
Onday said the wide variety in design of the barriers-from earthen mounds and metal posts to concrete berms topped with wood - conforms with the "physical requirements of the land.
"Either the engineering was more feasible for one kind at one point or the people who lived near the area just had a preference," Onday said.
The project's cost also includes the construction of fire hydrants and water lines along the roadway.
The barriers, which run from U.S. Rte. 1 south of Alexandria to McLean, are being built by Armco Steel Corp. and Chantilly Construction Co., and are scheduled for completion in July.
Maryland transportation officials said they currently are studying plans for similar barriers for their side of the Beltway.
Hazel Kemp, who lives on Keota Street in Burgundy Village just behind the Beltway, said she can hear her family better since the barrier went up. "But if you're six feet away, forget it. And when you go outside, you have to go up and touch a person if you want them to know you're talking to them," Kemp said.
While Kemp and other residents are skeptical about the barriers' benefits, Elaine Aron said she covets the concrete embankments she sees near the Springfield area.
For the last two years, she and several of her neighbors near Georgetown Pike have been trying unsuccessfully to persuade the state to include their backyards in the multi-million dollar noise control program.
The Beltway has been widened in their area since they moved in and highway officials agree that the volume of traffic has increased.
"I never sit on the back porch, we never use the patio," Aron said of her $200,000 home on Delt Street, only 100 feet from the Beltway. "Just listen to it, those trucks grinding their gears as they hit the uphill curve."
Highway officials said the state cannot amend its original plan.
"The Beltway was there when they bought those houses," said Keith. "And when you buy a house, you buy the roof, the foundation, the noise and the bugs that go along with it."