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'The singing highway': It's not your tires

Stonington — It's a whale! It's a ghost! It's an alien!

No, it's the sound of your car traveling on the stretch of Interstate 95 north between exits 91 and 92 in Stonington, perhaps accompanied by the sound of a rising heartbeat as you wonder whether something is wrong with your tires or bearings.

After the stretch was paved between Oct. 28 and Nov. 6, drivers started noticing unusual noises. On social media and in correspondence with The Day, they shared their impressions on what it sounded like.

"It sounds like a pod of humpback whales is with us as we drive northbound between exits 91 and 92," said Jen Panosky of North Stonington. Maria Bareiss of New London commented, "As I approached exit 92, I heard WHALES! Then, I interpreted it as my BRAND NEW CAR having a problem!"

Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesperson Kafi Rouse said in an email Friday afternoon that sound may often be the result of high-frequency rolling — "when a vibratory roller is used to help compact hot-mix asphalt when paving" — that is completed in cool temperatures. Contrary to some public speculation that this was done to slow down drivers or keep people awake, she said the sound wasn't intentional.

"Potholes and crumbling pavement are very difficult to repair during cold weather therefore this resurfacing was performed as a temporary fix ahead of the winter season," Rouse said. "This resurfacing is a temporary solution until full-scale milling and resurfacing paving can be performed as part of a larger project."

She said full-scale paving likely will occur in 2024. She said DOT "is monitoring this issue closely" and expects the noise to subside over time, due to factors such as temperature, vehicle traffic and plowing. 

State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, said he got a concerned call from Wequetequock Fire Chief Ed Dennett, and Howard said Thursday he has been in contact with DOT and expects to hear back with more information soon.

"This is just like a howling noise. It almost sounds like you have a flat tire," Dennett said. "Twice now I've seen people over the side of the road, checking their tires out. I'm just worried someone's going to get hit up there."

Dennett said he's never heard anything like this on another road before.

People have asked whether a sign could be put up to warn drivers that the noise is just from the road and nothing is wrong with their cars.

But Rouse said DOT must adhere to national standards set by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, a document issued by the Federal Highway Administration, "and this type of signage would not be allowed since the noise is not a safety concern."

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said Friday morning that she has gotten a few comments about the noise and knows DOT is looking at it. Later in the day, she said she heard from DOT, and "they made it clear that this is not unusual with weather changes, to have a different noise pattern that is not typical but is not a safety issue."

Rouse said the contractor for this paving was American Industries. A DOT attorney said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that the total cost of the purchase order was $1,688,801, and the request for proposals and contract were done through the Department of Administrative Services.

The I-95 paving in Stonington came under a broader $69 million award. DAS spokesperson John McKay said all 17 suppliers that responded to the bid were awarded the contract.

American Industries didn't respond to a voicemail or emails Friday seeking comment. The company, based in Jewett City, is the same contractor that had to repair a section of Route 1 in Stonington that it improperly paved in 2018, at no cost to the state. After the $870,000 project was completed the first time around, drivers noticed an uneven or "washboard" quality on the road, and then-DOT spokesperson Kevin Nursick said a pavement analysis expert determined the problem was related to how the pavement was installed by the contractor.

According to the Connecticut Office of the State Comptroller, the state has paid $251.66 million to American Industries since 2011. The company says on its website that it "became a leader in paving projects through out the state," including on I-95, I-395, I-84, I-91, Route 2, Route 9 and Route 6. A list of some projects can be found at americanind.net/our-projects.

Stonington resident Joe Cascio frequently drives this stretch of I-95 to visit his daughter in Hope Valley. He got new tires around the time of the paving, and the noise made him think, "Oh jeez, did I get some sketchy tires?" he said. "But no, I get up a little further, once you cross into Rhode Island, you don't notice it anymore."

On Dec. 2, he contacted the DOT Customer Care Center via email and asked, "Was this a construction fault or an intentional treatment of the finished pavement to increase traction, or for some other reason? It has created a potentially dangerous situation as some drivers appear to have thought there is something wrong with their cars or tires and pulled over to the breakdown lane to check the vehicle."

Cascio got a response that day from Bob Kropp, transportation general supervisor with the Groton Maintenance Garage, which Cascio shared in the Stonington Community Forum on Facebook.

"It is the result of high frequency rolling when paving in cool temperatures, and though noticeable now that its fresh and new, will soften with time as the heat from the sun and that generated by traffic helps to 'smooth' it out," Kropp replied. "The roadway, itself, is structurally sound, and there is no cause for concern regarding the riding surface."

State police Trooper 1st Class Sarah Salerno said a query of the reporting system from December through Thursday showed one traffic service call on Dec. 27 in which a motorist mentioned hearing a noise and stopped to check their tires. She said other than that, events in the Stonington area were typical.

Drivers fear flat tires, failed wheel bearings

The Day posted a query Monday asking if people have heard the noise and if they thought something was wrong with their vehicle, and we clearly struck a chord: More than 100 people sent emails. This reporter's inbox began to look like an I-95 noise support group, with multiple people expressing relief that they weren't alone in hearing this noise.

"It sounds like some ghostly music emanating from the car. The little girl from Poltergeist might say 'they're here!'" said Micky Williston of Pawcatuck. Rick Waters of Noank called it "an astral sound like the suspense part of a horror movie."

Katie McQuarrie and Sue Goldstein are among those who call it the "singing highway," while Harry Watson said it's known as the "singing road" in his Groton home.

One person said she ended up getting $1,800 of unnecessary work done on her car. A New London man said he and his wife were driving to Boston to see their son after Christmas but postponed their trip to get the car checked out, and then spent $2,850 on needed work that was mostly unrelated to the noise.

Elisa Coppelman is one of the people who pulled over onto the side shoulder. She had just left a "leisurely weekend at our cottage in the Mystic area" and was driving back to Massachusetts. She felt unsafe, as it was getting dark, her dog was anxious and she had a 2-hour drive ahead. Coppelman said a man pulled up behind her and asked if he could help, and he explained that the noise was a common experience.

Tom Benoit of Mystic said he thought something was wrapped around one of his tires and pulled off at the next exit, and he almost canceled his plans. Tory Christian of Mystic said a friend nearly missed a plane, thinking his car was damaged and trying to find out why.

Bob Manzella of West Haven said he was driving to Westerly for dinner on Thanksgiving and was near the Elm Ridge Golf Course when his 2018 Camry started making a loud noise. He thought a wheel bearing had failed, so he got off at Exit 92 and immediately checked his wheels for heat.

"Glad to hear others are hearing the same noise," he said. "Creepy."

Anne McMullin of Mystic said the noise was the hot topic of a family cookie swap just before Christmas. She and multiple others thought they had a flat tire at first. John Groton of Stonington thought it was maybe ice under the chassis.

Like Cascio, Majda Begonja and Wendy Kelleher thought it was an issue with their new tires. Kelleher said she pretends it's a whale song, like from Dory in "Finding Nemo," and sings along with the "whales" on her runs to the airport and Trader Joe's in Rhode Island.

Kelleher was one of at least six people who referenced intentionally engineered "musical highways," such as one in Lancaster, Calif., with groves that produce a portion of the William Tell Overture.

A few people said they've heard a noise like the one in Stonington on other roads before.

Paul Parulis of Niantic ended on a positive note: "Better a singing highway than one with potholes."

e.moser@theday.com

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