Highway project will offer peace and quiet, with a view of the wall

September 20, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Dennis Kritzmacher's favorite time is early morning, when he often sits in his Ellicott City rancher's pleasant breezeway on View Top Road, sipping coffee as he watches the first of roughly 87,000 vehicles a day roar by on eight lanes of the newly widened U.S. 29 below.

"Staring down there is like watching a fire," Kritzmacher said, explaining that as a Corvette collector, "I'm a car guy." His only complaint is being forced to look at the two huge green highway signs moved into his line of vision after the widening, he said.

Soon, however, Kritzmacher's view and the constant noise that goes with it will be muted by $7.6 million worth of sound walls - 7,500-pound slabs designed to look like the local granite used to build Ellicott City's historic courthouse.

The construction under way along the west side of U.S. 29 - Howard County's main thoroughfare - stretches from U.S. 40 to a spot 3,000 feet south of Route 103. When the walls are in place and 8,000 new trees and bushes are planted next spring, they will complete a $28 million widening project designed to relieve congestion brought on by the opening of Route 100 nearly six years ago. Howard County contributed $4 million toward the cost of the work, according to Ronald Lepson, chief of engineering for the county's Public Works Department.

Cutting the noise

Installation of the walls should begin this fall, and the project is scheduled for completion in May. Next spring, a shorter, $1.6 million sound wall project on the east side (northbound) of the highway will provide noise barriers from Route 175 north to Diamondback Drive.

State highway officials said that noise measurements along the highway have found sound levels ranging from 66 to 74 decibels - high enough to make it hard to have a conversation with someone 3 feet away. The 8- foot-tall panels should cut that noise level nearly in half, state highway officials said.

However, traffic volumes may be higher now than in 2002, when the last measurement came up with the 87,000-vehicle- a-day average.

Kritzmacher might not mind the noise, but other residents living near U.S. 29 do, and they're eagerly anticipating installation of the heavy walls.

For David and Susan Balderson, the walls promise more use of their bed and breakfast's big back yard, adorned with a scenic pond. They operate the Wayside Inn, a 1780 stone house on Columbia Road, at the southern end of the noise wall project. Their house is made of the granite the sound walls will imitate.

David Balderson said the noise is constant, especially from big trucks that seem to bellow especially loudly as they shift gears.

Inside the restored historic house, the traffic noise is nearly undetectable, thanks to the house's 18-inch-thick walls and a triple-thick layer of glass/laminate that covers the interior windows.

David Balderson said he hopes that once the walls are in place, the property's secluded rear will become more alluring for patrons.

Like others who live along the highway, Balderson said he'll miss the row of trees that helped shield his building from the sight of passing vehicles, but that the walls that will replace them should be an improvement.

"I think it's better than looking at cars all the time," he said.

Larry Chand's house is a bit north of the Wayside Inn on Columbia Road and very close to the highway.

He can't wait for the walls to go up.

"We are definitely looking forward to the walls. I cannot keep my windows open," said Chand, who added that big trucks along U.S. 29 are so loud they shake the walls of the white frame house.

The Chand family had their home built seven years ago but didn't realize how disturbing the road noise would be.

"I was thinking of selling" before the wall project got started, Chand said.

Mixed feelings

Gary Schlee and his family have lived near the highway since 1974, in three different houses. His View Top Road abode is close to the Kritzmachers' and faces the highway, although it's set back at the end of a long driveway. He has mixed feelings about the walls.

"I miss the trees," he said. The noise is "not too bad - like the ocean."

"Truthfully," Schlee said, "with the house closed up, you don't hear it much."

In fact, Schlee said he'd rather have the trees than the walls.

"It's interesting, looking over on 29 and seeing what's going on," he said.

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