Local Residents Voice Opposition at First HazMat State Hearings

City Councilor Sal LaMattina, State Senator Anthony Petruccelli and State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz testify in support of a proposal to re-route hazmat trucks away from the North End and Charlestown to Route 128 and the highways around Boston.

The North End / Waterfront community showed up in force on Tuesday at the first of four State hearings regarding the proposed re-routing of hazardous material pass-through trucks from downtown Boston to surrounding highways. Although the hearing was on the other side of town at State transportation headquarters, many North Enders came to tell officials, in their own words, why the hazmat trucks don’t belong on city neighborhood streets. City of Boston officials are strongly recommending the hazmat route change based on a comprehensive 182-page public safety analysis recently released by the Ohio-based independent research company, Battelle Memorial Institute. Several people recalled the fiery images of last month’s hazmat truck explosion in Saugus on Route 1 and what that would mean should it happen in the North End / Waterfront or along the Greenway.

MassDOT, the State’s transportation routing agency, is considering the City of Boston recommendation to change the designated route of pass-through hazmat trucks from the North End / Waterfront to Route 128 and the other highways outside the city. Battelle’s study analyzed 18 alternative routes within and outside the city. In the North End / Waterfront, designated streets currently include Atlantic Ave., Commercial St., Cross St. and N. Washington St. experiencing an estimated 100+ hazmat trucks per day.

After a review of the public safety study by the Battelle Institute at the meeting, City of Boston Transportation Commissioner Tom Tinlin spoke on behalf of Mayor Menino who has long supported a ban of hazmat trucks in the city. The proposal also has support from the entire Boston delegation of legislators.

“The facts are on our side,” testified State Senator Anthony Petruccelli speaking in support of the recommendation to ban hazmat pass-through trucks from Boston. “The trucks are too dangerous to come through the North End.”

“Every night, the people in my district live in fear,” said City Councilor Sal LaMattina. “These trucks do not belong in the North End or Charlestown.”

State Representative Aaron Michlewitz testified, “The numbers speak for themselves. The routes through downtown Boston are significantly more risky than Route 128 and the highways around Boston. We all know about the recent tragedy along Route 1 this summer. Imagine if such an accident had taken place on the dense populated streets of Boston”

In addition to elected representatives, several community organizations spoke in support of the re-routing proposal including the North End / Waterfront Residents’ Association (NEWRA), the North End / Waterfront Neighborhood Council (NEWNC) and the North End / Waterfront HazMat Task Force.

By the numbers, the Battelle safety analysis concluded there is 4x more risk from hazmat trucks in downtown Boston than on Route 128 during the day and 2.2x more risk at night. The risk is higher during the day as suburban commuters and tourists are also put at risk in the city. Federal routing criteria dictates a routing change when the risk ratio is over 1.5x (i.e, 50% more risk). Thus, the current routes through the North End / Waterfront are well above the recommended risk ratios, strongly justifying a route change outside downtown Boston to other existing routes on I-95/I-93/Route 128. Although multiple parameters are considered, the primary basis of the risk assessment is the density of population surrounding the route.

Pass-through hazmat trucks are not doing business or delivering in Boston, but rather passing through to save time rather than use the highways around the city that were designed for commercial vehicle traffic. The fuel trucks previously used the overhead artery expressway before the Big Dig tunnel, which prohbits hazmat vehicles. According to Battelle, nothing in the report would restrict the local delivery of gasoline, diesel fuel or home heating oil in the City of Boston.

Several trucking companies and lobbyists testified at the public hearing, including large gasoline trucking operators and the Massachusetts Motor Transportation Association (MMTA) that represents the industry. The trucking companies expressed concerns about the added time and expense of the re-routing proposal. Traffic on Route 128 can get congested and several expansion proposals have been delayed.

Trucking executives, including Larry Noonan of J.P. Noonan, cited the risk of highway speeds causing rollovers versus the slower city traffic pace in downtown Boston. MMTA lobbyist, Anne Lynch, said “We are fraught with high speeds on highways when its not congested and we have an average of 8-10 miles per hour going through the city with traffic lights on every block.”

Debra Boronski of the Massachusetts Chamber of Business & Industry testified about concerns of increased costs to the truckers being passed on to the consumer. As required by its guidelines, the Battelle study addresses the question of whether the re-routing would cause an unreasonable burden. Their analysis tallies an insignificant increase in costs, translating to under a penny on each gallon of gasoline transported.

Monika Tibits from the Route 128 Business Council testified about traffic congestion encountered by the shuttles the organization runs on the highway. “We cannot handle any more traffic on our overtaxed roadway,” she said.

Representing businesses in the city and speaking in favor of the re-routing to highways outside Boston were Richard Dimino from A Better City and the North End’s own Joanne Prevost Anzalone who said, “Cost is not the issue, safety is the issue.” The Freedom Trail Foundation’s Mimi LaCamera also reminded attendees that tourism is the largest business in the State, centered in the North End and downtown Boston.

The public hearing process now moves to the suburbs where similar meetings will be held in Quincy, Waltham and Stoneham. The pubic comment period is open until September 23, 2011. Residents and businesses can email bostonhazmat@state.ma.us to express their own views on the proposed routing change.