Road outrage: Waterbrook residents tired of road noise

By Joe Southern
jsouthern@fortbendstar.com

(Photos by Joe Southern)
Marlice Jobe holds up a protest sign along Sienna Parkway. She would like to have the speed cut to 35 mph to reduce the level of traffic noise permeating the homes in the Waterbrook community.

Residents along Sienna Parkway have been complaining about road noise for years but say Missouri City has turned a deaf ear to them.

“The city portrays us as people who bought next to an airport and then complain about the airport noise but that’s not the case at all,” said Waterbrook community resident Jim Hemingway. “There was no traffic when I moved out here.”

The community was established in 1977 and annexed into Missouri City in 1982. Four years later what residents thought was an expansion of McKeever Road turned into Sienna Parkway and became the main entryway for Sienna Plantation, a master planned community in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). As the community has grown, so have the traffic volume and the accompanying noise. John Jobe can prove it. In addition to meticulously documenting the community’s battle with the city for more than 17 years, he has a handheld decibel reader, which clearly shows the hum of traffic permeating their homes at 75 decibels or more during peak traffic hours.

“In April of 2000 the noise became uncomfortable,” he said. “It exceeds federal limits.”

That is the equivalent of a typical dishwasher or the noise of a busy restaurant. The difference is this is what they hear in the sanctuary of their living rooms each morning and evening. In comparison, normal human conversation takes place at about 60 decibels and 80 decibels is similar to a garbage disposal, doorbell or an alarm clock.

Jobe, his wife Marlice, and several other neighbors recently gathered at Hemingway’s house to talk about their problem and their 17-year struggle to get Missouri City to respond.

“We’re tired of them giving us the runaround,” John Jobe said.

“They keep saying ‘we’re looking into it,’” added Hemingway.

They have asked the city several times to install a sound barrier wall, pave the section of Sienna Parkway by their homes with noise-reducing asphalt, and to lower the speed limit from 45 to 35 or 40 mph.

According to Missouri City spokesperson Cory Stottlemyer, none of the requested changes will be happening any time soon.

“As recently as this month (May), City staff and elected officials have explained to residents that the City does not fund or construct sound walls,” he said in an email reply to an inquiry made by The Fort Bend Star. “Throughout the years, the City has received numerous requests for the construction of sound walls and screening walls. This includes the request from Waterbrook, from subdivisions along Texas Parkway, along State Highway 6 and most significantly from subdivisions adjacent to industrial development in the City.

“Historically, Missouri City has not funded or constructed any sound barriers or community fencing. While the City will continue to look for opportunities to do this by leveraging resources with other agencies, at this point we don’t have the funds. All of the sound barriers along FM 2234 and Cartwright were done by the Texas Department of Transportation due to federal funding requirements that are triggered by the widening of a state highway. Sienna Parkway has no federal funding and has not been widened from its original four-lane configuration,” he said.

Stottlemyer said the city’s hands are tied when it comes to reducing the speed limit.

“In addition, the speed limit on Sienna Parkway is set by the engineering factors established by state law that the City is required to follow,” he said. “Sound volumes will not be significantly affected by a 5 mph reduction, even if it was allowed by state law. If a speed limit is set contrary to the engineering standards then the speed limit becomes unenforceable in court. City staff have explained that we will continue to attempt to facilitate other agencies with constructing the sound wall when there is funding to do so, but we are unable to fund this type of project with City funds in the foreseeable future.”

The Waterbrook residents have heard all of this before from the city and they’re not buying it.

“Had they simply told us in 2000 that we could not have a sound barrier we would have pursued other options. … Instead they have managed to delay things for 15 years while we foolishly believed they were working to help us,” Hemingway said.

The residents said they have been asking the city since 2004 to use Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) funding to build a wall. They found out last month in a homeowners association meeting with Floyd Emery, the city council member who represents them, that a wall has never been put on the TIRZ priority list.

“Priority of projects in the TIRZ business plan is based on pre-funding, of which there are approximately $38 million in pre-funded projects,” he said in a follow-up email after the meeting. “There has been no pre funding of this project so for priority purposes it falls behind all pre-funded projects. Further, correspondence from the TIRZ Attorney indicates there are no plans to attempt to pre-fund this project based on inadequate funds for the full construction cost of this project.”

Hemingway said that contradicts what they were told 13 years ago.

“In 2004 the city said they would look into the possibility of using TIRZ money for the project,” he said. “Unfortunately this letter from Floyd Emery confirms what most of us suspected all along and that was that nothing was being done. Floyd has confirmed that there is no pre-funding of this project, which confirms that there has been no action on the part of the city to get the sound barrier built. After almost 15 years we should be on top of the list.”

As for the speed limit, the residents feel that a 10 mph reduction will help reduce the noise and only minimally impact the time it takes to travel along Sienna Parkway.

“We are petitioning for a lowered speed limit of 35 mph along the stretch of road on both sides of the median from Sienna Ranch road to Watts Plantation Road,” said Marlice Jobe. “That reduction in speed will only insignificantly increase traffic time by a mere 10-15 seconds, thus significantly reducing the noise pollution in our front yards.”

Even though she has stood along the parkway holding protest signs, Jobe and her neighbors know they will probably not win that battle. There is already a speed control structure on the parkway designed to keep speeds up. The radar triggers the speed sign whenever traffic falls below 45 mph, not when it rises above like most do.

In his letter, Emery said the speed will not be changed.

“The current City speed zone was determined through engineering and traffic examinations,” he said. “Further, speed law disallows the reduction of speed to resolve safety issues, where safety improvements should instead be made. Artificial reduction of speed for the purpose of reducing noise levels have been shown to decrease traffic safety. Accordingly, based on these and other pertinent factors the City established and will maintain the 45 mph limit for this roadway and other like roadways in the City.”

The City has also turned down the suggestion of doing an asphalt overlay on the road.

“Public Works staff would not recommend an asphalt overlay as an alternative solution as it would not significantly reduce vehicle noise, would likely have an adverse impact on roadway drainage, and would produce reflective cracking at the pavement joints,” Stottlemyer said.

In addition to the noise problem, another complaint the residents have is the difficulty getting into and out of their subdivision. The traffic volume on Sienna Parkway has been increasing steadily and is projected to reach 46,000 cars per day. They said entering and exiting Waterbrook is risky and sometimes time consuming because traffic is so heavy and fast. Emery said in his email that the city will study the issue and consider options to increase safety.

Another issue the residents have aside from the negative impact the noise has on their quality of life, is the impact on their property values. Hemingway said a neighbor has had her house on the market for two years but can’t get a buyer because the noise.

“There’s a whole bunch of us who want to move because of the noise but we can’t move because of the noise,” he said.

The noise has already driven out some of the area’s natural inhabitants. Egrets and many other species of birds that used to live along Westbrook Lake have all but disappeared as the traffic noise increased. The residents are hopeful that if they are ever successful in getting the noise reduced that the birds and other wildlife will return to their community. In the meantime, they plan to keep bending Missouri City’s ear until the City finally hears them and responds.

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