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Long and noisy road

After many years, persistent highway neighbors get sound barriers, but a new group is always there to take up the fight for more

LEXINGTON -- When Edwin LoTurco looks out the window of his Turning Mill Road home, he can see state contractors working on a concrete wall that, when complete, will allow him to stand in his backyard and chat with his neighbor.

"There's a sense of relief, without a doubt," said LoTurco, who learned four years ago that, as part of a highway widening project, a bustling ramp that connects Route 3 north with Interstate 95 was moving 100 yards closer to his back door.

Four years and one costly legal battle later, LoTurco and his neighbors are finally getting some protection from the ever-present whirr and grind of the busy roadway.

The state announced this summer that two new sound barriers, one near LoTurco's home in Lexington, the other to the north in Woburn, should be standing by this time next year.

They are among a handful of noise-absorbing walls the state is building northwest of Boston. Barriers are going up in Andover and Billerica, too, with work there already in progress.

To the people who have to sleep through the sounds of not-too-distant traffic, the state's move to build the barriers is welcome progress. But they say more such structures are needed as highways are widened to accommodate ever-increasing traffic.

"It's a quality-of-life issue," said Thomas McLaughlin, mayor of Woburn, a city traversed by portions of two of the state's most heavily traveled interstates.

Hundreds of people who live along these bustling corridors have been asking the state to build more barriers, and McLaughlin recently wrote a letter to Governor Deval Patrick asking him to support the cause.

"We are putting up with the noise and traffic and congestion, so it doesn't seem like a lot for the Commonwealth to provide us with the barriers we need," McLaughlin said.

But the Massachusetts Highway Department says that while it understands residents' concerns, its top priority is making sure the state's roads and bridges are in good condition.

This is especially crucial now in the aftermath of the deadly Aug. 1 bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

"MassHighway is sensitive to the issue of noise along highways," said Erik Abell, spokesman for the Executive Office of Transportation and Public Works, the agency that oversees the Highway Department.

But at this time, he said in an e-mail, the state is focusing "our resources on building and maintaining a safe and efficient highway system for all users."

The original push for barriers began in the 1970s amid epic suburban sprawl. People living along Interstate 93 and Route 128 began complaining about the noise. They said trucks would rumble by late at night, waking them. They also said they could no longer enjoy backyard barbecues or the breeze through an open window on a summer evening.

As the regional economy boomed, they argued, their home values plummeted, and their quality of life diminished.

In response, the state began using a federal formula to determine whether certain communities deserved taxpayer-funded barriers.

After considering decibel levels, construction costs, and the number of homes that would benefit from barriers, the state promised people in 53 neighborhoods in Greater Boston that barriers would be erected, eventually.

Typically made of concrete and about 25 feet high, the barriers generally can cut traffic noise as much as 50 percent, according to the US Department of Transportation.

But most of the long-promised barriers were never built. When residents inquired about the list, the state typically responded that the Highway Department's money was being used to maintain state roads and bridges.

Then in 2000, the state launched its $385 million widening of Route 3 north. The 21-mile section of highway runs from Burlington to the New Hampshire border.

To accommodate business and residential growth along the corridor, the state doubled the width of the highway, and in the process brought travel lanes closer to long-established neighborhoods.

To make room for the eight-lane road, contractors had to clear sound-absorbing trees and boulders that once buffered homes from the highway.

As part of the job, the state built several barriers in places where the newly expanded highway wedged up against residences.

But people wanted more.

As construction continued, people in Billerica, Chelmsford, Lowell, and Tyngsborough clamored for relief, saying they couldn't enjoy their backyard pools or sleep with the windows open because the noise from the highway was simply too loud.

As residents along Route 3 and their legislators began lobbying for protection, those on that long-ago list also started speaking out.

Under intense political pressure, the state announced in 2004 that it would start building one or two barriers a year from the decades-old list, including a $4 million wall in Andover along I-93 from Hansom Road to Dascomb Road. The state will continue building other barriers that were promised as part of state road projects.

These include the $5.3 million wall in Billerica along a recently widened section of Route 3 north. That barrier is expected to be finished this fall, and the Andover wall sometime next year.

More recently, the state began laying the foundation for the barrier near LoTurco's home in Lexington, and in Woburn on the southbound side of I-95, near Salem, Grove, and Locust streets.

Both the Lexington and Woburn barriers are in their preliminary stages, so the costs have not been determined, Abell said.

Meanwhile, advocates for these structures warn that the push for noise protection will not end anytime soon.

Every year, as more automobiles hit the highways, the state expands some of its roads to accommodate the new crush.

Chris Bortlik, one of about 200 Woburn residents who want the state to build more barriers on I-93 and I-95, said people in Woburn are suffering from hearing loss because of the nonstop noise.

He said he is happy barriers are being built, but "it is only a very small fraction of what we need to do."

LoTurco said he has been fielding calls from residents in Peabody and Tyngsborough asking about his neighborhood's success and how to convince the state that they, too, deserve relief.

He said he typically tells the caller that getting the state to build a barrier is not easy, but that it is not impossible either.

"I always tell people, 'You can't do it on your own. To be successful, you've got to work together as a unit.' "

Christine McConville can be reached at cmcconville@

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