OAKLAND -- Rockridge residents gathered once again to discuss two possible stretches of sound walls on either side of Highway 24, a project still several hurdles away from even applying for funding and facing increasing scrutiny from some residents.

At the Oct. 17 meeting, which was attended by around two dozen residents, city personnel emphasized that proceeding with further sound wall studies could mean eliminating other proposed projects in the area, such as improvements to pedestrian crosswalks, intersections and bicycle lanes.

Several of these, however, are currently considered higher priority than sound wall studies, and difficult topography and changing Caltrans standards makes estimating construction costs tricky.

"The more you get into design ... the more you know really what's required of these projects," said Victoria Eisen, a city consultant working on fourth bore mitigation projects.

The two sound wall areas were identified in the 2009 preliminary Noise Barrier Scope Summary Report, but residents must sign a petition to approve a second, more conclusive study.

"Getting the sound wall studies done doesn't necessarily guarantee funding," Eisen told residents. While the studies would be covered by settlement funds, actual construction would have to be obtained elsewhere. According to Eisen, in order to win construction funds, the project must be prioritized over others by the city, Alameda County Transportation Commission and, finally, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. In a later interview, Eisen called the process "extremely competitive" because of other capital projects that have been waiting for funds for decades.

Revised study costs for the eastbound section of Vicente Way and Broadway are now estimated to be $704,000, while the westbound span between Ross Street and Telegraph Avenue is now at $778,000 -- a $150,000 increase for both in order to cover Caltrans oversight, preliminary soundwall design and environmental assessment.

In March, a letter sent out by Transportation Services Division Manager Wlad Wlassowsky informed recipients that their property "is one of 481 that could experience a minimum 5 decibel noise reduction if sound walls were constructed." The petition must be signed by two-thirds of the eligible property owners by March 2014 to advance the project.

But 38-year Rockridge resident Jon Gabel believes the petition should have been extended only to the 133 properties directly adjacent to the proposed walls, as identified by the preliminary study, and says the number was increased "to make it easier to get the (sound walls) approved."

Gabel is a longtime opponent of the sound walls. He has published his own analysis on RockridgeSoundWalls.org, where he has taken to task everything from the preliminary report's findings to the city officials involved with the project.

During the meeting, Eisen denied that the letter sent out to property owners was incorrect.

"This is the first I've heard that anything is false seven months after we wrote it," she said at the meeting. In a later interview, Eisen added that the sound walls are a decision that "includes more than the houses that face the freeway."

Gabel, who lives in one of the first-row houses, is unconvinced. "People who are more far away from the freeway tend to be more concerned with the noise than with the aesthetics of this thing," he said in an interview.

But according to Gabel's longtime neighbor and friend Annette Flystrup, most residents do want the sound walls.

"I have lived in the neighborhood since I was a child, so I remember the neighborhood before the highway," she said. "The increase in the noise from the highway in those 32 years has been enormous, and with the addition of the (Caldecott Tunnel) fourth bore it will become more again."

According to Flystrup, response to the petition on her block has been overwhelmingly positive -- 18 of 19 property owners have signed it so far. Despite reportedly overwhelming support for the sound walls, the majority of comments at the meeting addressed intersection and crosswalk safety projects.

The sound walls are part of a list of proposed projects created after Oakland received $8 million as part of a settlement with Caltrans in 2008 over unaddressed environmental impacts of the fourth bore project with the Caldecott Tunnel. Of the 37 projects, only the first 11 are currently in the budget, although that may fluctuate as some are eliminated or combined.

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