On Your Side: Why did NDOT build new sound wall next to vacant land?

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Life has changed for Buffy Ford and her neighbors on East Roland Street in south Carson City.

Ever since the new freeway was built, with a sound wall that comes to an abrupt halt right in front of their homes, there's a lot more noise.

"We hear the jake brakes from the trucks, the hard braking, the motorcycles that go by," Ford told us during a recent interview outside her home.

The Nevada Department of Transportation admits the noise levels have increased in the neighborhood with the opening of the new freeway, but not enough to justify extending the sound wall any further on the north side of Snyder Avenue.

"We monitored the sound following federal and local regulations," said Meg Ragonese with the Nevada Department of Transportation.

With that in mind, you might be surprised to see what's on the south side of the freeway: another sound wall that runs more than half a mile, at a cost of nearly $1 million according to NDOT.

But the wall on the south side borders empty land consisting of mostly dirt and sagebrush. Some of the nearest homes are more than a mile away.

The difference is the land on the south side of the freeway is part of Stewart Indian Colony on the Washoe Reservation.

Ragonese says NDOT wanted to make sure there would be as little impact as possible on the people who live on the Reservation.

It's a practice state and federal governments refer to as "Environmental Justice," authorized by a presidential declaration in the mid '90's.

"We make sure that minority populations are protected," Ragonese said. "That includes the tribal land on the southern side of the freeway."

Ragonese says the Washoe Tribe plans to develop the land on the south side of the freeway at some point according to the tribe's master plan. However, Tribal leaders would not discuss their development plans with News 4.

And Ragonese says NDOT's own testing found that, for some reason, the freeway noise will be louder on the south side of Snyder Avenue compared to the north side as time goes on. That's another reason the agency built the walls as they stand.

News 4 asked Ragonese if the people on the north side of the freeway received the same consideration as the people on the south side.

"Absolutely, we take very seriously our responsibility of being a good neighbor," Ragonese said. "We followed federal guidelines to do that."

A spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration in Washington D.C. told News 4 originally that there are no federal guidelines and that it is up to NDOT to decide where to build sound walls and how to monitor the noise levels.

FHA spokesman Doug Hecox then changed his story after speaking privately with NDOT and later told News 4 that state officials do have to follow federal noise regulations.

Hecox refused to provide a clear explanation for why his answer changed after conferring with NDOT representatives.

That may or may not provide a whole lot of consolation to the folks on the north side. They say when it comes to being a good neighbor, the state has fallen short.

NDOT points out taxpayer dollars are used to pay for these projects and that is why the agency must follow the guidelines to the letter. The agency says there is no leeway when it comes to the noise thresholds that are used to determine whether a sound wall gets built.

However, transportation officials say they will continue to monitor noise levels in case they do increase and meet the minimum standard for a sound wall at some point in the future.

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