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Brian McGrory

Mr. Writer’s wild ride

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / June 16, 2010

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It’s funny where a job like this can take you, and on one recent day it was taking me toward the Boston skyline in the passenger seat of an 18-wheeler driven by Mike Galicki, an experienced truck driver with a spotless record.

We were on a critical mission, one designed to provide firsthand experience in an enormous truck traversing what will soon become the daytime hazardous materials route through the teeming center of Boston’s waterfront. The intent was to discover whether it’s easily maneuverable, or whether the waterfront as we know it will soon be wiped out.

A bit of background: The federal government forbids trucks carrying hazardous materials — fuel, propane, and the like — from the Big Dig tunnels. The city has long taken it a step further: It has barred all hazardous material trucks without a city-issued permit from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. And, in classic fashion, it refused to issue any permits.

This meant that, unless a truck was making a delivery in Boston, it had to circle around Route 128 by day to get from, say, the Everett fuel terminal to the South Shore. Truckers didn’t like this.

The feds didn’t either, and they recently told the city to make way for hazardous materials by July.

This is where the problem compounds. The city, reluctantly accepting the return of hazmat trucks, planned to route them along Cross Street. But the feds are nixing that because, they say, the official hazmat route, as shown on maps from years ago, is Commercial Street, through the North End. The city, they say, never amended that, so it still applies today.

Sending hazardous waste along Commercial Street is like sending it through an area that one resident described as “The Disneyland of Boston’’ for all the tourists and attractions.

Which is how I ended up driving with Galicki, who has no dog in this fight, but does have a truck and expertise in driving it. The idea was to see whether traversing Commercial Street was a reasonable — and reasonably safe — venture.

Riding in an 18-wheeler is not as smooth as I imagined. I felt my throat bouncing against my forehead, which meant I couldn’t scream when it looked as if we were about to wipe out a car or a building, which was every moment. The view from the cab can be deceiving.

“This is nice and easy,’’ Galicki calmly said.

He marveled at the lack of traffic at 11 a.m. on a weekday. I was noticing Steriti Memorial Rink, hard by the road, and side-by-side-by-side Little League fields, swimming pools, and a tot lot. We vibrated past hulking condo buildings, restaurants, and Columbus Park.

As we rounded a curve toward the Greenway, Galicki peered into the side mirror and observed, “Right now, the trailer’s in the other lane; you can’t get around the corner fully.’’ I was nervously watching 50 or so children crossing Commercial Street.

“It’s not a bad route,’’ Galicki concluded as I hoisted myself down from his cab. Maybe not for a truck driver with 2 million miles under his belt.

I then sat with local resident Brendan O’Brien, watching trolleys, coaches, and double-deckers load and unload tourists. O’Brien explained that it wasn’t terrorism that people fear the most, but the uncertainties of everyday life. You need only remember the Everett fuel truck crash in 2007 to understand what he means.

“They’re talking about adding hundreds of trucks with hazardous material on this road,’’ O’Brien said.

No one at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration returned a call to discuss my experiment. They have said the city failed to perform a proper safety analysis despite having years to do it, and rules are rules.

City officials are angry at Washington. Washington seems annoyed at the city. The people of Commercial Street are frustrated with everyone.

And the idea of hazmat trucks up and down Commercial Street is crazy. Common sense needs to prevail.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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