I have been spending my last few days on a little fight against government bureaucracy.
The Queensland Department of Main Roads is planning to upgrade a motorway close to my house. They are adding two extra lanes and building another bridge down the road — the second Gateway Bridge — and this large arterial road is predicted to get twice as much traffic in the long run.
This extra noise would affect a large number of houses in my area. We already have an inconvenient amount of noise in our houses because of that motorway, and any more would certainly become really annoying.
Although surely there are lots of places much noisier than our area, the residents of this area certainly would prefer it to be quieter, as we have learned from speaking to our neighbours. Besides, the only appreciable source of noise we have is from that particular road. This is the acoustic equivalent of a blinking light in a corner of your bedroom. Which is much more annoying than the equivalent intensity coming from everywhere at the same time.
The most affected part is the park down in the end of my block, next to the motorway, the Boorabbin Picnic Grounds. Luckily, we can’t see the motorway from the open areas of the park, because it is concealed just behind the small patch of forest, but the noise makes sure you can’t ignore its presence.
One of the nicest spots in this park is next to the Bulimba creek. You can walk right down to the creek, and there is a nice natural environment there. It would be really pleasant, if you didn’t have to cope with the trucks passing by. This is one of the areas where the Gateway Motorway gets closest to the Bulimba Creek, which flows towards the Brisbane river and is the main creek in a relatively large catchment area southeast of Brisbane.
South East Queensland and Brisbane is the fastest growing region in Australia and also is one of the most biodiversity rich areas of Australia. You can hop off a plane in Brisbane and within 20 minutes you could be discovering a remnant natural area with intact original ecosystems and wildlife. This is unique for a modern capital city in today’s world.
The little remnant of natural forest in that patch seems to be almost pleading us to turn the volume down. And even if they can’t express their concerns in that way, it is certain that would-be picnickers feel the same way.
So you would imagine that when upgrading the motorway, and making it even closer to the park than it already is, Main Roads would automatically consider that the least they can do to compensate for the inconvenience is to put some noise barriers up. Having noise barriers is already common practice in other spots in large freeways that cross residential areas. But attending an information session about the upgrade project, Shana and I found that the noise in our area was “within the criteria”.
Of course I had to ask what the criterion was, because it seemed that putting noise barriers would be the right thing to do in that case. The Main Roads person politely explained that they didn’t know exactly, but someone did a noise assessment according to the Code of Practice of the department, and found that the houses and our park were predicted to stay below the noise level required to make Main Roads consider noise barriers.
It seemed perfectly unreasonable to me, and I couldn’t imagine that the criterion for a Queensland Government department would get it so wrong in this case. So I asked for the data that was used in that analysis. It seemed to take the guy some minutes to understand or believe that I actually wanted to look at the data.
I asked if he could send it by email but he said it was “too big” for that. I asked if he could make it available online but he thought it was too big for that too, he would have to give me a CD. I can’t understand how putting some files on the web is “too hard”. All it would take was some hard drive space in some government server with a link from the Department’s webpage. The files were even already separated into small pdf’s, which should make the job of downloading them easier for those with lower connection speeds.
But the difficulty in making government documents public seems to be correlated with the sensitivity of the data. So the guy said he would have to send it through the usual snail mail. It would take too long, I thought, and after some negotiation he agreed to leave it in my post box himself the next Monday.
I have a lot of experience marking lab reports for physics or engineering undergraduates, and if this Environmental Noise Assessment report prepared by Heggies PTY Ltd for the Department of Main Roads was being handed in for marking, they would probably fail the course. Looking at the actual data you can see that the park was actually not only above the magic number from Main Roads’ Code of Practice, but in some parts of it, especially the most interesting part close to the creek, it was screaming way above!
The report tried to justify the lack of noise barriers by saying that the park was in the range of 62-65 dBA and that “at least 65,000 square meters” of the park was below the criterion of 63 dBA (in a certain measure of sound pressure). Not only it was clear from the actual data from their computer model that none of the park was below the criterion of 63 dBA, but that the range was actually around 64 – 71 dBA, with the highest levels being in the most interesting and more naturally preserved area of the park, where the creek runs. What’s more: estimating from Google Maps, the park has a total area of about 60,000 square meters! How can it be 108% below the criterion!?
So we decided to do something and collected signatures from more than 130 residents in our area. We talked to our local Member of Parliament about that, and he supported our submission and talked to the project team at Main Roads. They seem to have gotten embarassed by the error and will request Heggies to explain their noise assessment. I personally think there’s not much that can be explained, just a few things that can be corrected.
Even beyond our small case, by looking at the relevant Code of Practice from Main Roads, and looking at the Queensland’s Environmental Protection Act of 1994 we’ve found that the two of them, to quote a great Australian movie I’ve seen recently — The Castle — have completely different “vibes”. And just as in The Castle, the difference in the vibes can actually be put in some more or less convincing legal lingo.
Shana and I sent a detailed submission about the case to the project team, carbon-copied to the Minister for Main Roads and other Queensland Government Ministers. We are waiting for an official response, but I think it sounds pretty likely that at least we’ll get the noise barriers.
And who knows, maybe we’ll even help improve Main Roads’ Code of Practice to make it more environmentally responsible.
In any case, I think the whole episode gave me a very interesting experience of how it is not so hard to change things if we only care and do something about it. It is an interesting change from the mostly contemplative academic life.
Let’s see where this one goes.