With an estimated 180 attendees, the intensity of community outrage was voiced at this week’s public meeting on hazardous material (haz-mat) trucks going through the North End/Waterfront neighborhood. “I can’t remember ever seeing such a large neighborhood turnout,” said State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, referring to the standing-room only crowd gathered at the Fairmont Battery Wharf hotel ballroom on June 2nd. City and State officials, along with the Police and Fire Departments, were there to explain why a Federal agency in Washington D.C. pre-emptively reversed the City’s 4-year old daytime ban on haz-mat trucks from “cutting-through” Boston along with an associated re-routing along Commercial Street. The meeting was chaired by Stephen Passacantilli, President of the North End/Waterfront Neighborhood Council. State Senator Anthony Petruccelli attended the meeting as did representatives of City Councilor Sal LaMattina (who was held up at a City Hall hearing on the firefighter pay issue). LaMattina, Michlewitz and Petruccelli are united in their opposition to the haz-mat trucks using city streets to cut through Boston using Commercial Street/Atlantic Avenue in the North End/Waterfront area.
Tom Tinlin, Commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), did most of the talking as he walked through a sequence of events that led to the current situation where up to 200 haz-mat trucks per day are likely to return to the North End on July 1st. During the Big Dig construction along Cross Street, city transportation officials temporary routed haz-mat trucks to Commercial Street in the North End. Hazardous material vehicles cannot use tunnels, such as the one created by the Big Dig. In response to the high volume of haz-mat trucks on the city streets that previously used the overhead I-93 expressway, the City of Boston halted daytime permits in 2006 for haz-mat trucks “cutting through” (i.e., not delivering within) Boston. At the same time, BTD also reverted the night-time and city-destined haz-mat truck route back to the Central Artery path, along Cross Street.
“Things worked well for four years,” said BTD’s Tinlin. “We used the tools we had to make it a safer city.” Boston officials never thought the Feds would preempt their decision because regulations state that public safety, not the convenience or economics of the truckers, is the primary factor used in such rulings. In addition to the daytime ban, Tinlin said they felt comfortable with the move off Commercial Street because Cross Street was less residential, had 1/3 the population of Commercial Street and was a shorter distance.
A Federal agency, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), spurred by the American Trucking Association, surprised City officials with a preemptive reversal ruling in November 2009 because they were never consulted on the route change. BTD says they never considered it a “route change” because it was just a temporary shift as a result of the Big Dig construction. As a result, the FMCSA told the city they had to complete a safety study to justify the daytime ban and routing. Boston officials say they were only given 6 months to do an 18-month study.
BTD officials say the FMCSA told them extensions would easily be granted to complete the study, although these assurances were unfortunately never formalized in writing. When the 6 month deadline ended in May 2010, BTD officials said the FMCSA unexpectedly refused an extension and ordered the city to allow the haz-mat trucks to cut through again, an action that also changed the route back to Commercial Street.
After the one week in May of the rumbling haz-mat trucks, Commercial Street residents and businesses are up in arms. Due to intervention by U.S. Senators Kerry and Brown, along with Congressman Capuano, the City of Boston received a 45-day extension of its daytime ban from the FMCSA. With the extension, trucks carrying hazardous materials can travel through the city only between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. In addition, trucks cannot use Commercial Street in the North End. Haz-mat trucks now must once again take Cross Street to the Charlestown Bridge to connect to Interstate 93. The extension expires on July 1, 2010.
The trucking companies say that the ban forces them to go around Boston, using the Route 128 loop, which is a longer and more costly route. The City of Boston received permission from the State for the ban and route change back in 2006. They also held over 30 hearings with the trucking industry and communities. When the Federal agency ruled against them in November 2009, City Hall says the Feds knew it would take at least 18 months to perform the ordered safety study.
Since the November 2009 federal ruling, the City has hired Battelle, an internationally renowned consultant, to perform a $250,000 risk assessment and route analysis. A preliminary analysis performed by another firm concluded the city is safer with the ban and route changes in effect. The final study is expected to take at least until October 2010, after which State law requires hearings in the surrounding communities.
Unless the standoff is resolved between the government agencies, haz-mat trucks will return to the North End via Commercial Street on July 1st. City officials say it is impossible for the Battelle study to be completed by July 1st, the new deadline set by the FMCSA. The federal agency says it will not grant more extensions which means that the haz-mat trucks will once again use Boston’s streets to cut through the city. The change would also route the trucks to Commercial Street in the North End/Waterfront area.
At the meeting, David Arnold of 63 Atlantic Avenue showed a slide show highlighting the extensive safety problems with the Commercial Street route. Despite its name, Commercial Street is primarily comprised of residential buildings, parks, recreational facilities, senior housing, a hotel, a Coast Guard base and small neighborhood businesses. In addition, Commercial Street is a major pedestrian walkway including the famous Freedom Trail which is used annually by 3 million tourists. The street is also home to the Harborwalk, which provides public access to Boston Harbor for residents and visitors. Neighborhood children also cross Commercial Street to access the adjacent little league fields, community pool, tennis courts and skating rink. Arnold ended his presentation with a video of a J.P. Noonan gas tanker truck barreling through a red light on the corner of Commercial and Foster Streets.
Atlantic Avenue resident, Ann Moritz, presented an extensive list of researched facts and figures to explain why the historic North End is the last place for haz-mat trucks from a public safety perspective. By her estimation, the Commercial Street haz-mat route impacts as many as two-thirds of North End residents. Brandon O’Brien from Commercial Street questioned the safety of the trucks going over the N. Washington/Charlestown Street bridge. The bridge is in desperate need of repair and also supports large natural gas and electrical trunk lines into Boston. He asked whether the city should stop all heavy trucks from using the dilapidated bridge.
N. Washington St. resident, Joanne Fantasia, asked that if the haz-mat trucks are to continue on her street, she wants previous promises to be kept by the city. In addition to the aforementioned Charlestown Bridge repair, she said the city told them that N. Washington Street would be re-paved and traffic lights would be timed to slow down the trucks. Nancy Caruso, an activist who lives near Cross Street, spoke at length regarding the need to find alternative routes, such as Congress Street or Massachusetts Avenue, completely away from the North End.
Joanne Anzalone, President of the North End Chamber of Commerce, spoke in opposition to the trucks on Commercial Street and advised residents to write letters to the White House, in addition to the FMCSA. Tinlin agreed that the letters received to date are having an effect in helping the city gain more time.
“This isn’t over,” is how Tinlin ended the meeting. A follow-up meeting is expected before the July 1st deadline. In the meantime, he encouraged residents to write to the FMCSA. “Please tell them to hold up their end of the bargain and give the City the extension we were promised.”
NEWNC (neighborhood council) and NEWRA (residents’ association) are expected to take up this issue at their upcoming meetings on June 10th and 14th, respectively. See the Calendar for details.