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Walling off the noise

In Dennis Loomis' household, even the sound of a box fan is more pacifying than the roar of cars flying down Interstate 75.

And that's with all the windows and sliding glass doors in his Tremont Village home closed.

The noise is so annoying that Loomis and Brad Page, a homeowner in Estates at River Park, have started an ad hoc committee that plans to, among other things, hire an independent sound expert to measure just how loud I-75 gets.

The group has no official name, has fewer than 10 members and has met just three times.

But their findings may be crucial as federal and state transportation officials collaborate on a road widening project that will see I-75 grow from four to at least six lanes beginning in 2008, which will undoubtedly contribute to the interstate's noise level.

To be sure, no one is opposed to expanding the interstate, Loomis and Page say. However, they do want to hash out a plan with the Florida Department of Transportation so noise doesn't become more of a nuisance.

First, they need to raise $2,000 for an expert to gather solid proof that a sound wall or some other kind of barrier is necessary to reduce the higher noise levels an expanded I-75 would create.

"We hear noise on a daily basis, and the noise has increasingly gotten worse over the years," said Loomis, who is using sound meters to take his own readings this weekend. "Any time we have company over, people comment about the noise."

Page is worse off than Loomis. His Yardley Way home abuts the interstate. The racket from I-75 is so bad that the walls in his home are double-insulated.

"We don't want to eliminate all the sound," said Page, a real estate appraiser. "We just want to minimize it and make sure all steps are being taken to minimize it."

Currently, I-75 has two 12-foot travel lanes in each direction, 8-foot inside shoulders and 10- to 12-foot outside shoulders separated by a median.

Hardly enough room to handle the 96,400 vehicles that use the interstate daily, DOT officials say. Already, several segments of I-75 have the lowest rating during peak travel times.

And with no sign of growth slowing down in northern Hillsborough and southern Pasco counties, it is estimated that 56,600 more vehicles will use the interstate daily by 2028, a nearly 60 percent increase.

In the immediate Tampa Palms area, the proposal for I-75 calls for three 12-foot travel lanes in each direction, one 12-foot auxiliary lane in each direction and 12-foot inside and outside shoulders. An auxiliary lane allows for merging at entrance and exit ramps.

From Tampa Palms to County Line Road, there would be three 12-foot travel lanes in each direction and 12-foot inside and outside shoulders.

Bring in the roads, Page says. Just don't bring in the noise, too.

"We need roads. We need access. We just need it done correctly," he said.

Of primary concern to homeowners within 300 feet of the interstate is why the department won't consider some kind of buffer. A noise wall, in particular, would muffle the loud sound of cars, 18-wheelers and other vehicles whizzing by their homes along the interstate.

The DOT's own findings last April 11 indicate that noise levels along portions of I-75 are as high as 81.1 decibels _ without the additional lanes. That's about as loud as a diesel truck traveling at its maximum speed 50 feet away. And it's well in excess of Federal Highway Administration standards for a noise barrier. The administration requires states to offer some kind of noise mitigation if levels reach 66 decibels.

With additional lanes, the level has the potential to reach 86.4 decibels, nearly as loud as a jet aircraft 1,000 feet in the air.

That same DOT report concluded that more than half of the 52 residences in Tampa Palms' Enclave, one of eight noise-sensitive sites the department studied, were predicted to approach or exceed federal noise abatement standards if I-75 were widened.

Despite those findings, Tampa Palms does not qualify for a noise wall, based largely on a state formula that divides the cost of a barrier by the number of homes that would be affected.

If a sound barrier can be built for less than $30,000 per affected home and if it reduces sound by a minimum of 5 decibels, then it will be built. The cost per home in some parts of Tampa Palms surpasses $45,000. Therefore, it's not economically feasible to build a wall.

But some Tampa Palms property owners wonder if data the department used was accurate.

Among their concerns:

+ Were sound measurements taken during the busiest traffic months of the year?

+ Were future homes considered?

DOT project manager Michael Seifert said it is counterintuitive to conduct sound readings during peak traffic times. When any roadway is congested, he said, there's no movement and no sound.

So "they model it where they think it would be the noisiest," he said. "It's louder when traffic is moving."

As far as the number of homes considered, the new Buckingham at Tampa Palms in Area 3 was not included as part of the DOT's original study.

Since a public hearing last month, the department has since re-evaluated the number of noise-sensitive sites including Buckingham. It also raised the limit at which a wall can be built from less than $30,000 to less than $35,000. This week, the department will determine if, under the new standards, Tampa Palms qualifies for a barrier.

If it doesn't, the DOT said there are other alternatives such as berms or vegetation. But Page and Loomis say the best remedy would be a wall.

"We're not asking for a dome to be built over the interstate," Page said.

Loomis added: "The sound level is atrocious. We need some type of relief. We suspect that a properly constructed wall that's tall enough is probably going to have to be done. If there are other ways to do that, that's fine."

_ Rodney Thrash can be reached at 269-5313 or rthrashsptimes.com.

Anyone interested in joining the homeowners group should contact Dennis Loomis at loomisdctampabay.rr.com or 615-1436.

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