In last week's Virginia Weekly, a story on a proposed noise wall along Interstate 66 reported that Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) pushed through a House transportation appropriation of $8.5 million for a "demonstration project" of noise barriers on I-66. The $8.5 million was for completion of HOV lanes on I-66, which the Virginia Department of Transportation said would be required before noise walls would be considered. The noise wall requested by citizens between Gallows Road and Route 50, which now has the support of the state, would cost an additional $9 million. (Published 10/18/90)

So how noisy is it, living along Interstate 66 just west of the Capital Beltway?"It's like trying to sleep on the median of the highway. Mothers have difficulty calling in small children from their own back yards. If you sit an iron on its heel, it will not sit up over night -- the vibrations knock it off," said Dale Lestina, head of the I-66 Citizens Coalition.

"It ranges from incredibly loud," said Rafael Garces, another member of the group, "to unbearable."

Residents living by the noisy highway are about to get some relief. The Virginia Department of Transportation agreed late last month to install concrete noise barriers along a 7.7-mile stretch of I-66 between Gallows Road and Route 50.

The portable noise barriers, 7 to 28 feet high, will shield 513 homes and several schools and recreation areas from the din of the highway. Construction of the walls, coupled with new interim high-occupancy vehicle lanes along the same stretch, should begin next spring and be completed by late summer.

The decision represents a victory for a small group of residents who have battled the highway noise that mounted in volume with the congestion and development of the last decade.

Lestina, a member of the community association for Mosby Woods, a neighborhood that borders I-66, said he has been fighting for noise barriers for at least 10 years. Year after year, he said, he and other nearby civic association representatives trooped into Transportation Department hearings to make their case.

"They would be very polite, say they were glad we brought them our concerns. And nothing would happen," Lestina said. The noise got steadily worse.

Then in late 1988, the 23 civic associations bordering that stretch of highway pooled their efforts and formed the I-66 Citizens Coalition, with the sole purpose of fighting noise between the Beltway and Route 50.

They wrote letters, bombarding both Virginia and federal highway officials with complaints. Finally, Lestina, a professional lobbyist for the National Education Association, decided to "go the political route."

With four lawyers and a sound engineer also among their members, they enlisted the aid of Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who pushed through a House transportation appropriation of $8.5 million for a "demonstration project" of noise barriers on I-66.

In April, they showed up at a state Transportation Department hearing with a tape of highway noise, 77 decibels loud, and played it while one of the civic association presidents tried to testify.

"Everybody in the packed room had to strain," said Mary Anne Reynolds, spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department. "It was annoying, to say the least. And it was clearly a turning point."

Virginia Secretary of Transportation John G. Milliken, present at the hearing, "was visibly moved," Reynolds said, and went along with the project.

There are still roadblocks. Wolf's appropriation is not contained in a comparable Senate bill. It must survive a House-Senate conference amid debate over the federal budget and strong pressure to cut the deficit.

Wolf will be a member of the conference committee and will fight to keep the noise barrier money, said Ed Newberry, his appropriations committee aide. "He feels strongly if there are improvements for commuters, they should be coupled with measures to lessen the impact on residents," Newberry said.

Citizens Coalition members also are upset that one neighborhood right next to the Beltway will be left unprotected.

The Dunn Loring area won't get any relief because that stretch of I-66 is getting permanent HOV lanes, and noise barriers must cost less than $20,000 for each affected home, according to state transportation regulations. The price of building noise barriers at that location would exceed $20,000, officials say.

"It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever," said Gaston Weakley, of the Dunn Loring Improvement Association. The noise there is far above the 67 decibels required before the state will provide barriers, he said. Without help now, the area may have to wait another 20 years for peace and quiet, he said.

"This is where bureaucracy at its worst kicks in," Reynolds said. "Listen, if you can't enjoy back yard barbecues with trucks grinding by, you don't want to hear about . . . interim and permanent improvements. You want to hear your dinner partner."

Reynolds and Lestina said they are still seeking ways to include Dunn Loring in the noise barrier project.

The I-66 noise problem and the state's rules to cope with it reflect an era when noise barriers were not in the highway builder's vocabulary. For example, state regulations include no program to retrofit existing highways with noise barriers.

"When we were constructing the interstate system in the late '50s and early '60s, a lot of things were not part of our thinking -- clean air, erosion, siltation, wetlands or noise," said Jack Hodge, the state Transportation Department's chief construction engineer.

When that stretch of I-66 was completed in 1964, he said, there were barely any houses around it and congestion was not a problem.

"Nobody dreamed of the traffic volumes, the noise, of homes right smack against the Beltway," Reynolds said.

It was only in the late '70s and early '80s that "we started feeling traffic noise was a quality-of-life problem," Hodge said. But "highways didn't create the problem alone. Development also created it," he said.

Virginia has been relatively progressive in constructing noise barriers in comparison to other states, Hodge said, even though fewer than 50 miles of its 54,000 miles of road are shielded. Putting noise barriers on all existing roads would cost $500 million to $1 billion, he said.

Prospects for installing noise barriers on more highways are slim, Hodge and Reynolds said, unless the state comes up with new financing from private developers or local governments.

In 1988, the state asked each local government to adopt an ordinance saying it would pay half the cost of noise barriers. But so far only Newport News has expressed interest, Reynolds said. The state also has offered to let counties use highway rights of way for barriers if they pick up the total cost. But there have been no takers, she said.

"We'd love to meet every need, but in the real world of limited resources, we can't," Reynolds said.

"The I-66 noise wall victory is a happy blip. The Citizens Coalition was unusually well-organized, articulate and savvy. They needed to be, because we were all grappling with a real urban transportation dilemma that's not going to go away."