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Hazmat trucks shifting to 128

Suburban route to see traffic spike

By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2012
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Tanker trucks full of gasoline and other hazardous materials that used to cut through the streets of Boston are now using Route 128.

The shift started earlier this summer after the state Department of Transportation quietly pulled the trigger on a much-debated new policy that reroutes so-called hazmat trucks onto the bustling suburban beltway.

The new daytime regulation stops trucks full of gas, oil, and other hazardous materials from cutting through the North End and other Boston neighborhoods to get to Interstate 93 south of the city.

Instead, the rigs will have to make a wide loop around Boston along Route 128/Interstate 95, cutting through a swath of suburban communities, from Woburn to Lexington to Milton.

Sara Lavoie, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said the decision came after months of public hearings on the issue, and the route change was announced in paid legal notices posted in The Boston Globe and Boston Herald and registered with federal authorities. Lavoie said she was interviewed about the new routes on a radio show for truckers.

“I would have thought people would have thought we did not make it quickly enough,” Lavoie noted.

But Jack Troast, executive director of the 128 Corporate Alliance, said the speed with which the Transportation Department put the new policy into place took him by surprise, even though he was aware that there had been state hearings on the issue. Troast said he had hoped to see further study on the regional impacts, from safety to the potential for affecting local gas and oil prices.  

“To be perfectly honest, I expected this to be a longer conversation,” he said.

Given current trends, this is likely to be just the first wave of a dramatic spike in truck traffic, not only on Route 128, but also Interstate 495 and other local arteries, according to a recent analysis by the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The number of cargo trucks, including those with hazmat loads, is poised to increase by more than 70 percent over the next two decades on all Massachusetts roadways, the study found.  

And Route 128 — especially the already jammed stretch in the Westwood-Dedham area — is expected to lead the way, according to the study.

State officials say they are not tracking the number of hazmat trucks that are using Route 128 now instead of Boston streets.

Still, that may change, with a recently passed transportation bill providing up to $300,000 for a study of the hazmat truck issue.

Meanwhile, the state DOT’s decision to shift hundreds of tankers and other big trucks with hazardous loads onto Route 128 came despite vocal opposition by town and city officials in communities along the corridor.

Mayor Jeannette McCarthy of Waltham was among those who argued it would simply move a problem from the city to the suburbs.  

“We are going to get some hazardous material transport on the highway, including gasoline trucks, but should any community be completely excluded, which I believe is the request here,” McCarthy said last year at a state hearing on the issue, referring to the proposed hazmat truck ban in Boston. “It is understandable politically to have that position, but I don’t believe it’s reasonable.”

The new route was projected to mean on average an additional 317 tankers and other hazmat trucks daily on Route 128.

It was a case of the North End and other Boston neighborhoods pushing even harder than suburban officials, said Monica Tibbits, executive director of the 128 Business Council. 

“I think in the end it came down to the fact the North End community was very, very vocal about it,” Tibbits said. “It boils down to whoever is yelling the loudest.”

Yet this may be just the beginning of truck-traffic headaches along Route 128, if that recent study by the Boston Region MPO is any indication.

The Westwood stretch of Route 128, near the intersection of interstates 93 and 95, is projected to see the biggest increase in truck traffic of any comparable interchange or stretch of highway in the Boston area, according to the report.

The interchange was handling 862 truck trips a day back in 2009, when the last tally was done, the study finds.

The number is projected to more than quadruple over the next 18 years, hitting 2,869 truck trips a day by 2030, according to the Boston Region MPO report. That’s more than a hundred trucks going through every hour, and even that understates it, since truck traffic escalates during peak hours.

What is driving this increase?

In this case, it’s all the development planned for the area, including the Westwood Station project. Although that plan never got off the ground, more development in the area is anticipated, with New England Development having resurrected plans for the site.  

And if you think Route 128 has it bad with truck traffic, check out the numbers for I-495, which has the three highest concentrations of truck traffic in the Boston area.

For example, along the highway in Chelmsford, north of Route 4, trucks make up nearly 15 percent of all traffic. That is in contrast to the entire Boston area, where trucks typically count for 8 percent of the vehicles on the road, the report by the Boston Region MPO finds.  

Although navigating I-495 can have its frustrations, older and more development-packed Route 128 really is in a league of its own when it comes to traffic jams and commuter frustration.

And the big question now is whether Route 128 can handle all those additional big rigs.

It is a highway system already under extraordinary stress, operating well over capacity. The stretch of Route 128 between Route 3 in Burlington and Waltham already sees 200,000 cars and trucks a day, far past its capacity of 150,000, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council reports.  

Troast said that state transportation officials left a number of unresolved issues on the table, chief among them safety, in addition to the increase in traffic jams.

Troast worries that local fire departments along the Route 128 corridor will not be as prepared to deal with accidents involving fuel trucks as their big-city counterparts in Boston and Cambridge.

“The safety issue, that’s an unresolved question,” Troast said. “What is the preparedness of these communities along 128?”

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.

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