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MnDOT goofs in implementing its new noise policy in Minneapolis

Arvonne Fraser
Courtesy of Arvonne Fraser
Arvonne Fraser

"Do you have a waterfall nearby?" an international visitor once asked me. Her question puzzled me until I realized she was talking about our I-35W freeway noise. She couldn't see the cars and trucks whizzing by because the freeway is far below street level and trees and sumac bushes obscure the view of the road.

I've lived with this noise for 30 years. It's background noise that our minds and ears tune out. But now the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has decided I need a noise barrier — a 20-foot wall that would obstruct my view, cut out light, destroy trees and my garden, and create havens for crime on the sidewalk and dead-end streets that abut 35W.

They tell us we will get a 5 decibel reduction. They didn't say it would cost taxpayers $5 million. That's a million dollars per decibel.

No thanks. I like it here. And I can't figure out what a decibel is. My neighborhood — Marcy-Holmes, abutting the University of Minnesota — was recently deemed one of the four best neighborhoods in the city by Metro magazine. It's pleasant and convenient, easy to get in and out of, but hard to get around in because the freeway created all our dead-end streets.

Park-like covering sought early on
Ever since I-35W was proposed in the 1960s, the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association has wanted its section of the freeway covered, not just to muffle the noise, but to re-link this university neighborhood that 35W bisects. A park-like space over the freeway was envisaged — similar to Duluth's covered freeway that links its downtown and east-side residents to Lake Superior and the Duluth harbor.

But this great 35W wall is our neighborhood's only choice, MnDOT decided. And only 84 property owners and residents out of the 10,000 residents here get to vote on it. Local property owners living in Arizona, New Jersey and Illinois get to vote on this wall but my neighbor in our next block can't. What's worse, if these absentee owners — or anybody else qualified to vote — don't vote, it's counted as a "yes." And who counts the votes?  Nobody is quite sure.

It's not only my neighborhood that gets this great wall. Two other neighborhoods — Beltrami and SE Como — are affected. Apparently MnDOT isn't aware that in Minneapolis neighborhood associations want to know when massive construction projects are to be undertaken in their neighborhood, and they want a voice — or vote — about it as well.

Open houses on ramp and lane
MnDOT did hold public information open houses in our neighborhood this summer and fall about the new ramp onto northbound I-35W from 4th Street South in downtown Minneapolis and an auxiliary lane from 4th St SE to Johnson NE, the notices said. No mention was made about the great wall. Residents from the Beltrami neighborhood attending one of these meetings were told that nothing MnDOT was doing would affect them, an officer of that neighborhood association told me. She's furious now, as am I.

After the great wall proposal was discovered, enough human noise was created to make MnDOT decide to host another public information meeting. This time it chose a location more than a mile from I-35W — away from freeway noise. It's in the Logan Park Recreation Center's gym at 690 13th Avenue NE. The notice came on pink paper. That, and the date and time — 5:30 to 7 on Dec. 14 — suggest a holiday party. No mention of refreshments. It's a joint effort of Hennepin County, MnDOT, and the City of Minneapolis, the notice says.

The meeting's purpose is to explain MnDOT's new noise policy and process, how and why it was developed, what a feasible and reasonable noise wall is, what the voting process entails, and who gets to vote.

It's a little late. MnDOT has chosen this great wall as the "preferred alternative," even though it seems unreasonable. Extending the voting deadline won't do much good, for surely most of the return-postcard ballots are already recycled. Who's HNTB in Bloomington, I wondered the day our letter and return postcard arrived just before Thanksgiving. Most mail these days asks for donations to worthy causes. Who opens envelopes during the holiday season addressed to RESIDENT or with your name spelled wrong? 

I did. I Googled HNTB. You can too.

Arvonne Fraser, a longtime DFL Party activist and a political appointee in the Carter and Clinton administrations, is the author of a memoir, "She's No Lady: Politics, Family and International Feminism."

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Comments (5)

And where does the sound go? Is it absorbed? No, it's deflected.

The MNDOT just built a bigger-better soundwall near my parents in Burnsville off of 35E, prior their neighborhood didn't get any sound and now it's hard to hear each other when sitting in the yard. They live a mile away from the freeway.

This won't just ruin your yard it will send the sound into neighborhoods that currently do not get sound.

I absolutely loathe the new sound walls that went up about 18 months ago in our neighborhood along 35W.

We used to have a view (through the sumac and other vegetation) of a neighborhood park on the other side of the sunken freeway. Now the sun sets a good 15 minutes earlier. The plantings along the east side of our wall are struggling in their extended shade time. I'm sitting in our dining room and can see absolutely nothing else out the windows except for our own plants, placed there in part to soften that exact view.

The walls do little that is noticeable to reduce the traffic sound, especially since we are in the middle of a block that ends at a bridge over the freeway - no wall there. Emergency vehicles and horns are just as noticeable as ever. A friend living next to the off-ramp has an interesting "enhancement" of the traffic sound as cars come popping out between the wall segments and it suddenly echoes off the far wall facing their house.

Of course, these walls do exactly nothing against the noise from the dual flight paths directly overhead, and to add insult to injury, I don't trust for a minute that only 3 (out of several dozen, I think) of us voted against our segment - not after talking to the fourth neighbor myself. They included not only the absentee property owners, but also the homeowners on the opposite side of our alley who face away from the freeway with whatever supposed sound benefits they might gain, but none of the negatives.

The final resignation point for me, however, was a recognition that no matter what our side of the freeway voted for, the wall was likely to be erected next to the park we used to enjoy seeing, effectively transforming our view into a wall anyway.

As an advocate for increased off-leash recreational opportunities around the city, especially in areas where they could serve more diverse neighborhoods than those already enhanced with such an amenity, I love the idea of a freeway covered with reclaimed green space.

It could be progressive in both the sense of how we approach our environment, and also how we build community within those same areas.

Some people complain about the (mis)perceived negatives of a "dog park" (still used pejoratively and without regard for the people they serve), but I would welcome a covering over the congestion below combined with the joy of seeing strangers become neighbors while letting their companions socialize right in front of my house.

MnDOT is an agency out of control, responsive to no one but road contractors and their employees union's. It is a bunch of engineers dreaming up expensive projects to build to feed their patrons who, in turn, provide MnDOT with political cover.

We have let them sacrifice the livability of cities, small towns, rural communities and neighborhoods on the altar of mobility. That mobility has brought us little but long commutes, traffic congestion and large seas of paved parking lots. Its not only a lousy way to live, but an environmental catastrophe.

Really,it's very impressive and you have great idea.


Noise Figure