The arrival of 250,000 motorcycles on the island this weekend has brought with it the claim that the vehicles’ rumbles and vibrations could cause some long-term damage to historic buildings downtown.
Questions over any possible effects resurface every year during the event — Lone Star Rally — but those are largely unfounded, Galveston Historical Foundation Executive Director Dwayne Jones said.
Without any scientific studies testing the impact the noise and vibrations have on historical buildings, engineers are split on whether this is an issue and, if it is, how deep the effects might be.
“There’s not anyone in the preservation world that could say it’s happening without testing it,” Jones said. “It’s certainly something we should be concerned with, but I don’t know if it’s an immediate hazard.”
Lone Star Rally, which runs until Sunday, is estimated to bring about 500,000 people to the island. Motorcycles line the streets of historic downtown Galveston, just yards away from some buildings that date back more than a century.
Doug McLean, an iron restoration specialist, has restored several historic buildings and is of the mindset that the constant vibration from the motorcycles could be harmful to the oldest buildings that have not been well looked after, he said.
“When you’re standing in one of these historic buildings on The Strand and you hear really, really loud music, you can feel the jams on the third floor,” McLean said. “There are some very delicate structures around the island and I think it’s important that you pay attention to the potential damage.”
Lone Star Rally works hard to be considerate to the people of Galveston, said Sharon Damante, the media liaison for Lone Star Rally.
“There’s always a balance between the needs of the locals and the desire to bring guests in to spend money,” Damante said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re just trying to be really good partners to the city and community.”
Damante declined to speak more about the issue.
Noise and vibrations from motorcycles wouldn’t cause any significant issues, said Stefan Hurlebaus, a Texas A&M University professor in the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering.
Structural engineers have completed numerous studies on construction’s effects on historic buildings, and that research largely agrees that direct vibrations in the ground can undermine the structure of nearby buildings.
That’s a much more pressing concern than Lone Star Rally, which is loud but not overpowering, Galveston architect David Watson said.
“When you think about it, it’s relatively minor,” Watson said. “There’s a lot of it, but it’s a relatively minor sound. You’d have to amplify it significantly.”
McLean said he doesn’t feel the noise/vibration debate is a pressing concern either, but that he does worry about the lime-based mortar between bricks, which is softer and sandier in texture and exists in several older downtown buildings. Over time, that mortar only gets more susceptible to deterioration, he said.
“The mortar is a major, major issue,” McLean said. “The worse the existing conditions of the structures, the more potential there is for this type of thing to cause damage.”
The vibrations of motorcycle engines likely wouldn’t reach a level that would negatively affect the structures, Watson said.
“It would be a real stretch to say that the motorcycles were causing the lime-based mortar to become less stable,” Watson said.
Jones, on the other hand, was clear that motorcycle noise and vibrations aren’t immediate issues to be addressed. But without a study, he said he wouldn’t count it out.
“It’s loud; it’s persistent,” Jones said. “It could happen.”