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A moment of silence, please: Timothy Hayes, Interstate 90 and the remains of the trees that kept them apart. Photo by: John Whipple

Sounding Off
Shaker Park residents push to turn down the volume of their noisy neighbor, Interstate 90

On an average day, more than 100,000 vehicles pass less than 50 feet behind Timothy Hayes’ home. And, said Hayes, hecan hear every one of them.

“It’s even louder now,” said Hayes, a resident of Albany’s Shaker Park neighborhood, located just to the north of Interstate 90’s westbound lane between exits 5A and 6. The line of trees between his home and the highway were removed several weeks ago as part of the I-90 reconstruction project.

“[The Department of Transportation] claims that the trees weren’t reducing any noise,” added Hayes, “but I know that they were. They don’t live here—I do.”

According to a DOT study conducted in 2001, Hayes’ home—along with 22 other residences—borders the loudest section of I-90’s toll-free corridor that cuts through Albany. This stretch of highway, which has experienced massive increases in traffic over the last few years, registered a noise level at peak time of 80 decibels—highest among the 84 sections of I-90 that were studied.

While the study also acknowledged that a noise-reducing barrier would be appropriate and cost-effective for this stretch of highway, federal guidelines exempt the $48 million dollar I-90 reconstruction plan from the standard mandates on noise abatement.

“We can’t consider the sound walls unless funding comes from another source,” explained Pete Van Keuren, a spokesman for DOT.

Federal noise-reduction policy makes barriers necessary only for those projects where construction of a new highway or lane of traffic creates a significant noise impact on the surrounding area. However, the reconstruction of I-90 doesn’t involve any expansion of the existing highway, and as such, requires both approval and additional funding from the state Legislature for construction of any noise barriers—additional funding that, according to state Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany), may not be available.

According to McEneny, the most likely source of funding for noise walls would be intermodal transportation money, a pool of funds provided by the federal government for maintenance of states’ sidewalks, bridges and other transportation needs.

“We get something in the hundreds of thousands [in intermodal transportation funding],” said McEneny, “but requests run into the millions. I suspect Shaker Park will need at least a million.”

An initial DOT estimate placed a $776,000 price tag on construction of a barrier 6.5 meters high and 478 meters long that would reduce traffic noise by 9 decibels—effectively halving the level of noise. The study points out early on, however, that costs associated with landscaping, traffic maintenance and other factors could increase the project’s overall cost anywhere from 25 to 100 percent over the initial estimate.

Albany Common Council member Michael O’Brien (Ward 12), whose district includes several homes in the Shaker Park neighborhood, argued that the cost of muffling I-90 could be reduced with alternate forms of noise reduction. While O’Brien acknowledged that the use of an earth berm in conjunction with trees and shrubs would not be practical as the sole form of noise barrier—the division between house and highway narrows to only a few dozen feet at some points along the I-90 corridor—he questioned whether a combination of berms and artificial walls might be less expensive.

“[The DOT] says a berm would be cheaper than a [manmade] wall,” explained O’Brien, “and there’s only about 50 feet where it’s too narrow. . . . I don’t understand why this wasn’t considered in the [DOT] report.”

When asked about this arrangement, Van Keuren agreed that such a combination might bring down the project’s price tag, but added that any solid estimates would require additional DOT analysis—and additional state funding.

Exacerbating many Shaker Park residents’ concerns is the planned expansion of Route 85 in Bethlehem—a stretch of highway that will have noise walls erected despite seeing less than a quarter of the traffic that passes along I-90.

“We know we’re a small community,” reasoned John Paneto, a 22-year resident of the Shaker Park neighborhood and president of the Shaker Park Neighborhood Association, “but we shouldn’t have to be continuously trying to get state officials to do what they should have done years ago.”

While Paneto and O’Brien conceded that years of effort have thus far yielded little progress in bringing a barrier to Shaker Park’s border, both men expressed hope that an upcoming late-August meeting between McEneny, O’Brien and some of the Shaker Park residents would yield positive results. According to McEneny, the need for a barrier between Shaker Park and I-90 was “very justified” and he looked forward to “sitting down with the neighbors and a map and figuring out what is needed and what can be done.”

In the meantime, DOT has already begun replacing the trees behind Hayes’ home, but it is expected that it will take several years for the new trees to reach the height of their predecessors.

“All I want is for something—anything—to be done,” explained Hayes. “I can’t even close my windows without being reminded that there’s a highway right outside.”

—Rick Marshall
rmarshall@metroland.net

If You Won’t, We Will
Attorneys general sue utilities for global warming, picking up where the EPA left off

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and attorneys general of seven other states and New York City sued major energy companies in late July to require reduced carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to help curb global warming.

“The U.S. is the largest emitter of carbon gases on the planet, and those five companies that are named in the lawsuit account for 10 percent of the entire U.S. production of carbon gases,” said Mark Violette, a spokesman in Spitzer’s office. “From our perspective this was the way to gain a fairly quick level of relief, a fairly quick level of carbon-gas reductions by looking at these five companies.”

The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages; rather the attorneys general demand an annual 3-percent reduction in carbon emissions for 10 years. The case is against five major utility companies—American Electric Power Company, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Xcel Energy Inc. Cinergy Corporation, and the Southern Company—which comprise one quarter of the utility industry’s carbon emissions.

Though global warming is debated by industry-friendly hardliners, a growing body of research—including one study in 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences prepared at the request of President Bush—suggests that carbon dioxide and similar heat-trapping emissions are the primary source of global warming. Carbon emissions are not currently regulated by the Clean Air Act, but Violette believes if the act were written now, “carbon would probably be the first thing that you’d regulate.” Spitzer has another suit pending against the Environmental Protection Agency for refusing his petition to regulate carbon emissions.

“In some cases you cannot rely on federal agencies always to act on your behalf,” Violette said. “That’s why the states took action against these five utilities on our own rather than requesting that the EPA do it, because EPA claims that it can’t.”

The utility companies are being sued under federal “public nuisance” laws. These laws are part of federal common law and were used to protect the public against pollution before environmental regulations were on the books, and are the basis for many of the country’s environmental laws. Critics say the attorneys general are trying to write environmental law themselves.

—Ashley Hahn
ahahn@metroland.net


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