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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Squeaky wheels

One of the common complaints city dwellers often voice is noise. We like to be free to make it, but we don’t want to be subjected to it.

Especially the noise that traffic makes. The sound of cars and trucks whizzing by is something that most of us want to escape.

Nevertheless, most of us live in suburbs that are hard to get to without a car. Our workplace is in a different part of town. To do our shopping requires a trip to a plaza at the edges of the city. We want to get there fast, so forget the stoplights, synchronized or not.

We also want a lot of products, and they need to be moved around, mainly on trucks. They have to move fast, too. Time is money.

If the road becomes too congested, just add on a couple of lanes, make room for more vehicles, no need to slow down.

Still, all that traffic adds up to a lot of noise. And that’s just what we are trying to avoid at the end of the day. We want to relax, sit in the backyard, invite a couple of people over, shoot the breeze.

But all the traffic makes it hard to hold a normal conversation. You can’t even open the windows on a summer’s day. You have to install air conditioning and pay the hydro bills.

That was one of the issues at the Built and Natural Environment Committee (BNEC) last night.

The area in question was the Veterans Memorial Parkway (VMP) between Dundas and Trafalgar Streets. Originally a two lane highway, it was widened to four lanes in 2005.

For some years, the residents along the west side have been complaining about the noise levels in their backyards. These concerns became exacerbated when talk of converting the expressway into a freeway found its way to council. The councillor for the area, Bill Armstrong, asked for an updated noise study in hopes of meeting the demands of the residents for a noise wall.

Noise walls draw mixed reaction: developers and homeowners may see them as the perfect solution to an irritation; urban planners and pedestrians hate them. They’re expensive to build and maintain; they attract graffiti; they divide communities; they create a prison atmosphere.

The City of London Policy 25(12) states that “the installation of noise barrier walls is intended to ensure that the existing residential backyards backing onto arterial roads which are widened to four lanes or greater are not subjected to significant noise level increases from levels that exist in the design year.”

That means you can’t just get a noise wall whenever you want; you have to meet a needs test. In this case, the magic number is 60 decibels (dBA). Below that, and a noise wall is not merited. Exceed it, and you have a shot.

Of course, if you are willing to pay for most of it yourself, it’s possible that something can be arranged, especially if you can get most of your neighbours to agree.

But these walls don’t come cheap, especially those that are reasonably attractive and durable. Staff used the figure of $12,000 per metre. No wonder that the city is not anxious to make these too readily available, apart from any aesthetic considerations.

At last night’s meeting, the residents were informed that the consultant’s report indicated that a noise wall wasn’t warranted. Their measurements suggested that the noise levels between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. didn’t reach the 60 mark. What’s more, anything less than a 5 dBA increase makes no perceptible difference and the increase from the pre-2005 level was less than 5. The traffic would have to double to increase the noise level to the qualifying point.

The residents weren’t buying it, and neither was their councillor. He wanted to know how the measurements were conducted: were they taken in the back yards, was the result an average, did individual readings exceed the 60?

No, they weren’t taken in the backyards, they were taken at the cul-de-sac and then incorporated into a computerized road traffic noise prediction model of the Ministry of the Environment. Yes, they were averaged; individual readings could go above 60 dBA.

And what about the timing, one resident wanted to know. The trucks don’t start up at 7 a.m. They’re at it at 4:30 in the morning. People can’t get a decent night’s sleep, stuff shakes off the walls. Sometimes it’s like a mini earthquake.

The councillor remembered a meeting with the residents in 2003 when concerns about the proposed road widening where being discussed. At that time, the residents were promised that if there was an increase in the noise level, they would get a noise wall. One of the residents attested to that commitment. So did the committee chair, Bud Polhill. Not a 5 dBA increase. Just an increase.

It was clear that more information was needed.

Even if a commitment had been made, would the current council be bound by it, wondered Councillor Denise Brown.

This drew the attention of Councillor Joe Swan who returned a little late from dinner and had missed the presentation and most of the debate.

“If an elected official makes a promise, that’s the councillor’s problem,” he opined. Others pointed out that it was not a commitment made by a councillor but by staff. Nevertheless, he gave little weight to the commitment; he wanted everyone to be treated in the same way according to the policy. He knew of some residents along Huron Street who would also want a wall.

“The cost of promises becomes unaffordable. That’s why we have the policy. This road hasn’t hit it,” he argued.

Councillor Joni Baechler tried to put an end to the bickering by pointing out that council had approved an Environmental Assessment to turn the road into a freeway. “What does the Class EA articulate?” was her concern. “Do noise walls come with this?” That assessment by itself would cost $250K with nothing budgeted in the 20 year capital plan. How would one begin to pay for noise walls?

Ultimately, the matter was referred back to staff to find the answers to these questions. Those answers may be forthcoming.

But what about the money to pay for it all?

1 comment:

J said...

We want to get there fast, so forget the stoplights, synchronized or not.

How about we filter-in-turn (FiT) instead of blindly obeying (or running) traffic lights & stop signs?

Visit FiTroads.com to learn about promoting the use of "commonsense on roads free of vexatious traffic controls".

One interviewee said her commute was reduced from 20 minutes to 5 minutes. That's worth looking into.

Plus, when you are paying attention to others people instead of signs & machines that know nothing of their environment, roads probably become safer.