EACH DAY, about 300 trucks with hazardous payloads including gas, diesel fuel, and heating oil use Boston streets as shortcuts to Interstate 93, according to city transportation officials. That poses unnecessary risks to densely populated neighborhoods, especially the North End and Charlestown. Trucks containing hazardous materials should have no business on Boston’s streets unless they are making local pickups or deliveries.
A hearing last week at the state highway division on alternate routing plans proposed by the Menino administration drew sharp complaints from the trucking industry. Already banned from the harbor tunnels, the hazmat truckers aren’t keen on Boston’s plan to divert them around the city onto Route 128. It would take truckers considerably longer to access the region’s major fuel depots in Everett, Revere, and Lynn north of Boston. And time is money in the transportation industry.
But safety trumps productivity. In May, a city-funded study by the independent transportation safety firm of Battelle determined that continuing the practice of cutting through congested areas posed a significantly higher risk to the public than using alternative routes, chief among them Route 128.
It’s not just the study’s probability models that state transportation officials should consider when weighing Boston’s request for a ban. This was never a purely theoretical exercise. Last month, a tanker carrying thousands of gallons of gasoline rolled over on Route 1 and burst into a fireball, killing the driver. In 2007, 10,000 gallons of gasoline from an overturned fuel truck ignited and surged through streets in Everett.
Anne Lynch, who heads the Massachusetts Motor Transportation Association, argues strongly that the public isn’t in any danger from rollovers by hazmat trucks traveling 10 or 15 miles per hour for short distances on city streets. But transportation experts and risk analysts from Battelle have concluded that the city’s safety concerns are real. Unless and until the trucking industry can counter those arguments, state and federal transportation officials should honor Boston’s plan to steer hazardous materials trucks back onto the interstate.