The Victoria man sat in a lawn chair in his driveway, counting. WHAP! One. WHAP! Two. An hour later he had a tally of how many times motorists on nearby Hwy. 5 had passed over the rumble strip installed on the center line last year as a tool to enhance highway safety.
Extrapolating, Ron Featherston estimates that he and his neighbors are audibly reminded of Hwy. 5’s existence about 240 to 300 times a day. A decibel meter placed in one back yard spiked to twice the level of normal highway noise at times, Featherston said.
The noise produced when a car passes over the strip interrupts nearby residents’ sleep, ruins back-yard activities and has “at least one family ... preparing to sell their home because of the never-ending barrage,” Featherston said.
The neighbors are now fighting to have the noisemakers removed.
The strips were installed during a 20-mile-long Hwy. 5 resurfacing project. They are part of a mandate to install centerline rumble strips on all rural, undivided 55-mile-per-hour state highways as they are built or worked on. Roads of this type see more than their share of serious cross-the-centerline crashes that result in deaths or serious injuries, a MnDOT memo stated, and the strips are meant to alert motorists who may be straying.
On Hwy. 5 between Chanhassen and Norwood Young America, 20 miles of which were resurfaced last year, there were 1.6 crashes per million vehicle miles traveled between 2001 and 2005, slightly higher than the state average of 1.3 for the same type of road.
Safety was the buzzword in the run-up to the project. MnDOT held meetings with county and city officials and stressed safety goals.
“Our highest priority is public safety,” said the mayor of Victoria, Tom O’Connor who, in the position of councilman last year, voted for the rumble strips when MnDOT asked for the council’s input. “Considering the safety considerations it seemed like the right decision.”
But if you drill down to the neighborhood level, the segment of highway that slides past Featherston’s neighborhood has fewer crashes than the rest of the stretch. In a five-year period there were two head-on collisions and one sideswipe involving vehicles going in opposite directions. Featherston said he believes one of those involved a drunken driver. “A rumble strip is not going to sober somebody up,” he said.
A federal report cites a study that found that when rumble strips end more than 650 feet short of a residential area, noise levels are tolerable.
Taken by surprise
At just about the time road resurfacing began in earnest in late May 2012, Cara Geheren, an engineer under contract by the city to review construction issues, sent a letter to residents mentioning various aspects of the project, including rumble strips. The city conducted a number of meetings.
“But there were so many details associated with the project that I don’t think rumbles ever came to the forefront. People were so concerned about the fact that the highway was going to be closed for such a long period of time,” Geheren said.
In a council meeting two months later, when Geheren gave a project update, the council debated rumble strips and voted to approve them despite the engineer’s recommendation that they don’t.
During the discussion, Geheren mentioned a handful of reasons for not giving rumbles a thumbs up: Past crashes may not have been deterred by a center strip, there were at least 40 residential properties that back up to the highway, likely making that segment urban and not under MnDOT’s mandate, and the road curves at that point.
“When you’re coming around a curve, cars can drift a little bit, not because they’re being careless, but just because they’re on a curve,” Geheren told Whistleblower on Friday.
In a later meeting, Featherston’s neighbor Brad Johnson complained to the council that residents were not given an opportunity to be heard before the vote.
Geheren set up a meeting for Monday. MnDOT will present its results from a rumble frequency study it conducted and will “solicit input,” according to a letter to residents. The study showed that the rumble strips are driven over as often as six times per hour.
The input will be presented to the council later this month and the council will make one of four recommendations to the state. “If the City Council tells us that the [strips] need to be removed, then we’ll probably remove them,” said Kevin Gutknecht, communications director for MnDOT.
“I didn’t appreciate how vehement the outcry was going to be,” O’Connor said, but he worries about removing the strips and having a subsequent crash. “That’s my worst nightmare.”
For his part, Featherston is happy to know that his concerns will be heard.