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Highway Traffic Noise Analysis and Abatement Policy and Guidance


Effective control of the undesirable effects of highway traffic noise requires that (1) land use near highways be controlled, (2) vehicles themselves be quieted, and (3) mitigation of noise be undertaken on individual highway projects.

The first component is traditionally an area of local responsibility. The other components are the joint responsibility of private industry and of Federal, State, and local governments.

Land Use Planning and Control

The Federal Government has essentially no authority to regulate land use planning or the land development process. The FHWA and other Federal agencies encourage State and local governments to practice land use planning and control in the vicinity of highways. The FHWA advocates that local governments use their power to regulate land development in such a way that noise-sensitive land uses are either prohibited from being located adjacent to a highway, or that the developments are planned, designed, and constructed in such a way that noise impacts are minimized.

Some State and local governments have enacted legislative statutes for land use planning and control. As an example, the State of California has legislation on highway noise and compatible land use development. This State legislation requires local governments to consider the adverse environmental effects of noise in their land development process. In addition, the law gives local governments broad powers to pass ordinances relating to the use of land, including among other things, the location, size, and use of buildings and open space. Wisconsin has a State law which requires formal adoption of a local resolution supporting the construction of a proposed noise barrier and documenting the existence of local land use controls to prevent the future need for noise barriers adjacent to freeways and expressways.

Although some other States and local governments have similar laws, the entire issue of land use is extremely complicated with a vast array of competing considerations entering into any actual land use control decisions. For this reason, it is nearly impossible to measure the progress of using land use to control the effects of noise.

Source Control

The Noise Control Act of 1972 gives the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to establish noise regulations to control major sources of noise, including transportation vehicles and construction equipment. In addition, this legislation requires EPA to issue noise emission standards for motor vehicles used in Interstate commerce (vehicles used to transport commodities across State boundaries) and requires the FHWA Office of Motor Carrier Safety (OMCS) to enforce these noise emission standards.

The EPA has established regulations which set emission level standards for newly manufactured medium and heavy trucks that have a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of more than 4,525 kilograms and are capable of operating on a highway or street. Table 1 shows the maximum noise emission levels allowed by the EPA noise regulations for these vehicles.

Table 1: Maximum Noise Emission Levels as Required by EPA for Newly Manufactured Trucks
Effective Date January 1, 1988
Maximum Noise Level 15 Meters from Centerline of Travel Using the Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc. (SAE), test procedure for acceleration under 56 kph 80 dBA

For existing (in-use) medium and heavy trucks with a GVWR of more than 4,525 kilograms, the Federal government has authority to regulate the noise emission levels only for those that are engaged in interstate commerce. Regulation of all other in-use vehicles must be done by State or local governments. The EPA emission level standards for in-use medium and heavy trucks engaged in interstate commerce are shown in Table 2 and are enforced by the FHWA OMCS.

Table 2: Maximum Noise Emission Levels as Required by EPA for In-Use Medium and Heavy Trucks with GVWR Over 4,525 Kilograms Engaged in Interstate Commerce
Effective Date Speed Maximum Noise Level 15 Meters from Centerline of Travel
January 8, 1986 <56 kph 83 dBA
January 8, 1986 >56 kph 87 dBA
January 8, 1986 Stationary 85 dBA

Highway Project Noise Mitigation

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 provides broad authority and responsibility for evaluating and mitigating adverse environmental effects including highway traffic noise. The NEPA directs the Federal government to use all practical means and measures to promote the general welfare and foster a healthy environment.

A more important Federal legislation which specifically involves abatement of highway traffic noise is the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1970. This law mandates FHWA to develop noise standards for mitigating highway traffic noise.

The law requires promulgation of traffic noise-level criteria for various land use activities. The law further provides that FHWA not approve the plans and specifications for a federally aided highway project unless the project includes adequate noise abatement measures to comply with the standards. The FHWA has developed and implemented regulations for the mitigation of highway traffic noise in federally-aided highway projects.

The FHWA regulations for mitigation of highway traffic noise in the planning and design of federally aided highways are contained in 23 CFR 772. The regulations require the following during the planning and design of a highway project: (1) identification of traffic noise impacts; (2) examination of potential mitigation measures; (3) the incorporation of reasonable and feasible noise mitigation measures into the highway project; and (4) coordination with local officials to provide helpful information on compatible land use planning and control. The regulations contain noise abatement criteria which represent the upper limit of acceptable highway traffic noise for different types of land uses and human activities. The regulations do not require that the abatement criteria be met in every instance. Rather, they require that every reasonable and feasible effort be made to provide noise mitigation when the criteria are approached or exceeded. Compliance with the noise regulations is a prerequisite for the granting of Federal-aid highway funds for construction or reconstruction of a highway.

Updated: 8/24/2017
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