I-70 noise prompts call for civil disobedience
“We are heading into another open-window season – in fact we are in it,” Moffet told his colleagues in a passionate plea easily exceeding decibel levels of normal conversation. “This is straight-up pollution. If something of this magnitude would be getting into the water, we would be up in arms.”
Moffet lives in one of six residential areas within Vail’s town limits that, according to a recent noise study, are routinely subjected to noise from traffic on Interstate 70 louder than 65 decibels and are eligible for federal or state noise mitigation funding.
The catch, however, is that funding is slow to come and applies only to the protection of residential neighborhoods built prior to the highway or interstate that is the source of noise. Most of the residential homes in Vail’s six “red zones” were built after Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 6 and 24.
Commissioned by the town in 2001, the noise study shows that in addition to the six locations as many as six more are expected to be at the 65-decibel level by 2020, if traffic trends continue.
Noise ordinances as they pertain to the town, allow for noise levels of 80 decibels for vehicles under 10,000 pounds and up to 90 for those weighing more. According to the ordinance, any vehicle generating more noise, violates the town’s noise code and is subject to a $500 fine.
According to the noise study, trucks passing through town on I-70 routinely exceed noise levels of 90 decibels.
In comparison, noise levels in the town’s commercial zones cannot exceed 65 decibels without a special permit. In a residential zone, anyone or anything louder than 55 is a violation.
Moffet told his colleagues that after more than two years of fruitless efforts to lobby of the Federal Highway Administration, or FHWA, and the Colorado Department of Transportation, CDOT, it is time to take muffling matters into municipal hands.
“What’s to prevent us from becoming an extremely squeaky wheel to CDOT,” he asked rhetorically. “I frankly don’t see any other alternative to dealing with these bureaucrats.”
Over the past two years, Vail has tried to lobby the state and federal agencies for noise berms, so called “jersey barriers,” as well as a decrease of I-70’s 65 mph speed limit through town.
The barriers have been ruled out by CDOT because of safety concerns. And a new speed limit could be set only after yet another study that would determine an ideal speed – higher or lower than the current one – a risk the town isn’t willing to take.
“If it is 70, we have to eat the 70. We don’t have a choice in the matter,” Vail Town Manager Bob McLaurin told the council.
Moffet told his colleagues that he was tired of getting the runaround from CDOT.
“Let’s go and slap up some Jersey barriers,” he challenged them, saying that he would welcome press coverage if CDOT would come and remove them.
“I’m not looking for the A-bomb here,” Moffet added. “I would consider conventional weapons.”
But neither his call for civil-disobedience nor his proposals to enforce the local noise or the speed limits – nor the state’s own requirement for mufflers on truck engine brakes with $1,000 to $1,500 fines – found much support on the council, except from councilman Chuck Ogilby, who said he would support enforcement of existing noise and speed limits.
Other council members – despite being put on the spot by Moffet “for not being interested in solving this problem” – said they would be uncomfortable resorting to guerilla tactics or taking on the tall order of making expensive and contested noise and speed tickets stick.
“We’d be really asking for trouble,” said Town Councilwoman Diana Donovan in response to Moffet’s proposal to “slap up” Jersey barriers without CDOT’s consent. “That’s a safety issue.”
“With all the due respect for Greg’s fervor and frustration, going to war with CDOT isn’t going to beneficial in the long term on our behalf,” added Vail Mayor Ludwig Kurz.
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger, who attended the meeting, said noise and speed violations would be tricky to prove and increased enforcement on I-70 would open a whole new can of worms on other violations.
“It would be difficult to pick out which vehicle is creating the noise, pulling them out of traffic would take at least 30 minutes,” he said. “With engine brakes, we would have to have a reason to pull them over. We couldn’t just do it to randomly inspect. You can’t see who has a muffler just from them going by.”
Increased police presence would also require town law enforcement officers to pursue other violators on I-70 – a practice frowned upon by council members, who prefer to see town police officers protect and serve in town and leave the interstate to the Colorado State Patrol.
Coming up short on a short-term solution – despite a bit of shouting – the council’s majority once again opted for another possible, long-term solution.
Councilman Dick Cleveland – a former Vail police officer – suggested the town lobby CDOT for an extension of the 45 mph speed limit for vehicles heavier than 10,000 pounds – a limit already in place for stretches of I-70 descending from the Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass.
“I think that is an idea well worth looking at,” Cleveland told his colleagues. “That’s a simple solution to a very complex problem,” he said adding that the lower speed limit should be extended all the way to Dowd Junction, where I-70 levels off.
With the majority of the council swayed – Moffet said he likes the idea but fears another solution pitch to CDOT was like “running ourselves into brick walls” – town staff will now pursue lowering the speed limit for trucks by 20 mph through town.
Even that probably won’t do much, however. According to Vail’s noise study by Washington Infrastructure Services Inc., it would muffle the noise by 0.7 decibels per 10 mph of speed reduction. Noise reductions of less than 3 decibels, meanwhile, are barely perceptible to the human ear.
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at email@example.com.