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Why GDOT’s Refusing a Fix For Mozley Park’s I-20 Noise Pollution

Residents say calls for a protective barrier have fallen on deaf ears with state transportation officials.

A chain-link fence is all that stands between noisy, high-speed vehicles on Interstate 20 in west Atlanta and Keith Palmer’s neighborhood in Mozley Park. (Chauncey Alcorn/Capital B)

Mozley Park residents can hear the annoying hiss of high-speed vehicles driving along the adjacent stretch of Interstate 20 all day and night. 

Realtor Keith Palmer and his wife, Shelia, have endured the constant sound for about two years. The couple didn’t realize how nonstop the noise was until after they bought their home in the west Atlanta neighborhood, where about 83% of residents are Black.

“You can’t sit on your front porch and just sit down and have some peace,” said Palmer, 63.

A chain-link fence is all that’s stopping vehicles on I-20 from plowing into pedestrians walking along a roughly 50-foot stretch of Gordon Terrace SW near Racine Street in the neighborhood, which sits about 3 miles west of downtown Atlanta.

Palmer and his neighbor Mia Pennington said the lack of a guardrail along that portion of the interstate has created a safety hazard near their homes. A vehicle accidentally drove through the fence last year during a nearby crash.

“God forbid there’s a car accident while you’re walking your dog,” Pennington said. “The chain-link fence [is] not going to protect you. You’re going to get hit.”

The Palmers and Pennington are co-founders of The Five Mile Project, a grassroots effort to get the Georgia Department of Transportation to erect a noise barrier along the part of I-20 that forms the southern border of their neighborhood.

Noise barriers are walls, often made of concrete or metal, that are built along highways to reduce noise pollution in surrounding communities. Extended exposure to excessive noise has been found to have significant physical and mental health effects, due to stress and the disruption of sleep, leisure, and other activities.

I-20 was built nearly 43 years ago, and was originally designed in the late 1940s as a dividing line of sorts between the city’s Black southside residents and their white, northside neighbors. A 1960 Atlanta city planning report said the highway “would be the boundary between the White and Negro communities.” 

Mozley Park transitioned from being a white neighborhood to a Black one during the 1950s, as Black families began acquiring homes there and white families fled as a result.

Palmer and Pennington have spent the past 23 months or so emailing and calling GDOT administrators. But so far, officials have refused to address the issue, saying conditions in Mozley Park don’t meet the federal guideline threshold for noise barrier consideration.

Federal law bars GDOT from using taxpayer money to build a noise barrier unless a “Type 1” construction project has been authorized on the highway in question, according to GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale.

“A Type 1 project would either widen or increase capacity on the existing roadway,” Dale said in an emailed statement. “It does not appear that there [is] a project of this scope identified for this area.”

GDOT’s position is unacceptable to Palmer, who says the agency responded differently ahead of a Georgia 400 expansion project in majority-white Dunwoody, where he lived prior to Mozley Park.

“They had sound barriers there up on a highway that hadn’t even been built yet,” he said. “Why can we not get any traction on this idea of protecting our community?”

The expansion project in question may fit the Project 1 guidelines GDOT previously described, since it was designed to increase vehicle capacity. The agency hasn’t responded to a request for comment.

Palmer and Pennington said they have reached out to several elected officials about the issue, including U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, state Rep. Mesha Mainor, state Sen. Sonya Halpern, and Atlanta City Council member Jason Dozier.

In an emailed statement, Dozier said his office has spent the past year and a half urging Mayor Andre Dickens’ administration, as well as state and federal legislators, to act on the matter. But it hasn’t been an easy effort, Dozier said, given that both state and federal agencies manage the interstate, and its existence is rooted in decades-old racial politics.

“Unraveling a half-century of policymaking involving three layers of government and multiple jurisdictions is a massive undertaking,” Dozier said, “but I’m proud to have played a role in advancing this work as much as possible.”

Mainor said in late August that she’s tried to set up a meeting between GDOT officials and Mozley Park residents but has had trouble finalizing details.

“[GDOT] tells my office one thing and the community is saying that [GDOT] hasn’t done what they said,” Mainor said via email. “The community spokesperson agreed to meet with me, but I never heard back. ”

Halpern, Maynor, and Dozier are scheduled to walk through Mozley Park with members of the Five Mile Project on Wednesday, Sept. 13, to discuss the issues affecting their neighborhood.

Halpern said she’s scheduled to meet with GDOT officials after the walkthrough to work on addressing the issues raised by neighborhood residents, including building a guardrail and a noise barrier.

“I can’t say today what we can do to address that problem,” Halpern said. “That’s part of the reason why I’m excited to do the walkthrough with the folks in the neighborhood who can spell out the issue for me directly, so we can try to address them one by one.”

Part of the chain-link fence that was damaged in a car accident about a year ago was recently fixed. Palmer expressed gratitude for the repair, but also frustration that it took about a year to do. He said the fence is not going to do much to stop the interstate noise or prevent another vehicle from hitting someone walking on the street that runs next to I-20.

“That’s a Band-Aid,” he said. “It’s not addressing the problem.”

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