A six-mile-long sound barrier wall being erected along an interstate widening project outside Columbia is costing $26 million, almost a third of the project cost to widen the highway.
State Department of Transportation Chairman Johnny Edwards of Travelers Rest told The Greenville News the cost of the wall is “absurd” but is required under federal regulations that mandate sound analysis for any federal aid highway project that widens the road or constructs new lanes.
The sound barrier, which will run along both sides of I-20 in northeast Columbia, dwarfs the state’s first completed noise wall outside Greenville in both size and cost. That wall, located near Mauldin along I-385, runs for about one-half mile and cost $1.5 million, according to the Department of Transportation.
And officials say they expect more sound walls to go up around the state, even as lawmakers grumble that the money for reduced noise could be better spent on the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
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Rep. Phil Owens of Easley, chairman of the House Education and Public Works Committee, said he recently saw the wall as he drove along I-20.
“With the emphasis that we've had on our inadequate funding of infrastructure in South Carolina over the past years,” he said, “and the amount of dollars necessary to even maintain the current road system we have, much less improve it to a degree that would enhance economic development, we need to look long and hard at those dollars.”
Interstate projects are typically paid for with a mix of federal and state funds.
Owens said if the walls aren’t federally mandated, “I would want to study the necessity of these sound walls versus replacing substandard bridges and roads across this state.”
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler of Gaffney said he wasn’t aware of the noise walls. “It is absurd,” he said. “It’s unbelievable, the waste of money.”
But Sen. Larry Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said sound walls aren’t always required unless the noise is above a certain level. He said they sometimes are recommended after the sound analysis and sometimes the government agency overseeing the road project chooses to pay for the noise reduction.
While the $26 million is a high number, he said, noise walls serve an important purpose.
“If the noise is such where a wall would alleviate some of the noise and make the place where it can still be livable, then that is probably justified,” he said. “In road projects, you still have to be sensitive to the communities you are affecting.”
A Department of Transportation task force last year estimated it will cost $29 billion over 20 years to bring the state’s infrastructure to adequate condition.
The Legislature earlier this year approved funding that will generate more than $600 million for transportation projects, most of it for several interstate improvement projects, including some along I-85.
A Department of Transportation engineer told The News last year that noise walls are used throughout the nation and come in a variety of styles and prices.
Pete Poore, an agency spokesman, said the barriers are required if the state does work that changes the geometry of a federal-aid highway and a noise analysis finds an impact on a nearby residential or commercial community.
The barrier, made of concrete panels attached to steel beams, runs 32,406 linear feet, he said, which works out to be 6.1 miles. He said the winning bid was for $26.2 million.
The noise wall appears to be complete on one side of I-20 and stands in front of trees. On the other side of I-20, workers are installing the beams. Apartments and upscale residential communities are located behind the construction.
Poore said the budget for the entire I-20 widening project is $75 million.
“I think that is a federal demand that we have that option,” Edwards said of noise walls. “The problem is we have to pay for it. I don’t think they’re needed.
“If you build next to a highway, you've got to expect some noise from cars and trucks. And you can’t build enough walls to stifle that noise. I think almost a third of that project is the noise wall, which I think is absurd.”