US slaps Boston’s rerouting of trucks

City never asked for federal OK

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / November 16, 2009

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Outraged that trucks carrying hazardous cargo had been barreling down Commercial Street day and night, then-House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and his North End neighbors persuaded the city in 2006 to end the temporary route used by trucks barred from Big Dig tunnels.

The city didn’t stop there: In an effort to protect public safety, Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration also halted all daytime permits for trucks passing through Boston with hazardous or flammable materials, including home heating oil.

But now a federal agency says the traffic-calming efforts were illegal; the federal government, through the state, approves hazardous materials routes and was never consulted. The city’s simultaneous elimination of permits effectively banned gas and fuel trucks from passing through Boston.

The decision, which will be published in the Federal Register today, says, “This de facto modification to the City’s routing designation . . . serves to shift the risk associated with that transportation to neighboring jurisdictions by forcing hazardous material motor carriers to use alternative routes bypassing the City of Boston.’’

The US Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued the ruling after a challenge by the American Trucking Associations and a request for determination by the Massachusetts Highway Department.

The trucking associations, and local members in the Massachusetts Motor Transportation Association, say the City of Boston was forcing truckers to travel miles out of their way, costing them fuel, productivity, and hurting the flow of commerce. As a result of Boston’s crackdown, trucks leaving the fuel farm in Everett by day must travel north to interstates to reach points south of Boston - extending a trip to Milton roughly sixfold to 42 miles.

Trucks delivering material including asphalt, fuel, gasoline, or home heating oil can make deliveries within city limits anytime. But they can use Boston roads only as a shortcut between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. Previously, the city let truckers cut through Boston during daytime hours, if they had a permit.

In 2006, when the city changed that system, it rescinded those permits and diverted trucks from Commercial Street to Cross Street - a route that was shorter, less residential, and safer because it had more traffic lights to slow truck speeds, said Boston Transportation Commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin.

The route tracks the Surface Artery that trucks took before Big Dig tunnels were built and hazardous materials were banned from them.

But the city never got federal or state approval for the change, believing it was only a modification that replaced the pre-Big Dig route, Tinlin said.

With an eye toward the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, city officials began looking askance at all potential hazards and tried to reduce fuel-toting traffic that wasn’t bound for Boston. Public concern was heightened about unintentional tragedy as well after a tanker overturned in an Everett rotary in December 2007, scorching three-deckers and cars and sending a river of burning gasoline down a residential street.

“As you can imagine, we have some very substantive public safety concerns and you need look no further than that incident . . . to see that these trucks can, under the wrong circumstances, be a deadly cargo,’’ said City Corporation Counsel William F. Sinnott.

Anne Lynch, executive director of the Massachusetts Motor Transportation Association, said it was the mayor’s truck ban that sent fuel trucks wending through outlying communities - in Everett and beyond.

“He took traffic that should have gone through the city and rerouted it through 27 towns,’’ Lynch said. “You cannot export your risk to another community.’’

Tinlin said the city stopped granting permits for trucks to pass through Boston after considering public safety risks and examining drivers’ reason for the route - convenience, which under city regulations could not be a decisive factor in awarding permits.

“We’re talking strictly about the person who is picking up their gas to deliver to Hyannis. Why should that person be able to cut through our city and put our citizens at risk?’’ said Tinlin. “We think the state highway system was designed for this type of commercial use.’’

Sinnott said the city will take a few days to consider its legal options, which include filing a motion asking the Department of Transportation to reconsider its ruling, an appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, or compliance by May 2010.

“The Department of Transportation did not find fault with what we were doing. They found fault with process,’’ Sinnott said.

To properly change the routes, the city would have to establish the reasoning for the shift after consulting with neighboring towns and analyzing a host of factors, including the population density along the corridor and the proximity of schools and hospitals, said Rich Moskowitz, vice president of the American Trucking Associations.

“Only in doing that analysis can you make an educated decision as to what the appropriate route is that provides the best level of safety as well as an efficient transportation system,’’ said Moskowitz. “They didn’t do it at all.’’