Forever 128

Truck detour idea carries fear as cargo

By Scott Van Voorhis
May 22, 2011

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If you think traffic on Route 128 can’t get any worse, just imagine dozens of tanker trucks joining the rush-hour crunch.

A new study commissioned by Boston officials recommends barring trucks that carry gas, chemicals, and other hazardous materials from cutting through city streets to Interstate 93. Instead, the plan would send the trucks on a wide swing south along Route 128/Interstate 95, through the heart of the western suburbs.

The proposal, backed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, is winning accolades in Boston, where the new restriction would divert an average of 317 big trucks every weekday from city streets after they pick up loads at a depot in Everett.

But it is going over like a lead balloon among the 128 corporate community and local officials, who say the highway is already choked by traffic.

“We are on the brink,’’ said Monica Tibbits, executive director of the 128 Business Council, which runs shuttles buses to ferry commuters to various office parks along the highway.

“I can’t imagine having another 300 cars, let alone 300 trucks,’’ she said.

State transportation officials are studying the recommendations.

Granted, another 317 trucks over a 24-hour period may seem like peanuts compared with the number of vehicles that now rumble along Route 128.

But the highway is already well over capacity, jammed each day with tens of thousands of vehicles it was never designed to handle. The stretch of 128 from Route 3 in Burlington to Waltham now sees 200,000 cars and trucks a day, far past its capacity of 150,000, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

The new study by Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based nonprofit research organization with expertise in transportation security, says at least 98 trucks carrying hazardous loads drive through Boston as rush hour heats up every morning from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. Another 38 trucks were found on Boston streets during the afternoon and evening rush between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., the report said.

All it would take is for one of these tanker trucks to get a flat while traveling Route 128 for the highway to become backed up, Tibbits said. And if one of them had a serious accident, trying to get emergency vehicles through a sea of stalled cars to reach it could be challenging as well, she said.

Jack Troast, executive director of the 128 Corporate Alliance, shares similar concerns. He notes that fairly normal events — a snow storm or a minor accident — already have the ability to trigger monster traffic jams on the highway.

Adding more tanker trucks to this unstable mix could be problematic, he said.

“It’s well over capacity,’’ Troast said. “Rerouting any vehicles that don’t take this as a normal route, you are going to increase the load on an already overtaxed roadway.’’

Still, Eric Bourassa, transportation manager at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said that adding a few hundred additional trucks over the course of the day, by itself, would not have an impact, even with 128 well over capacity.

But he acknowledged the proposal will spark other concerns as well — including fears that trucks laden with chemicals and gas would wind up on neighborhood streets all over again, this time in the suburbs.

Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said overflow traffic from 128 has already become a major issue. “I would be concerned,’’ she said. “128 is kind of congested as it is – I would be concerned about having all these backed up trucks. Right now, because 128 is backlogged, they cut through neighborhood streets.’’

Donna VanderClock, town manager in Weston, said she hadn’t seen the report and so couldn’t comment on it. But spillover traffic from Route 128 is a major concern in her community as well.

“Weston is a huge cut-through town,’’ she said. “Any time someone wants to add more traffic, that is always a concern.’’

No one can fault Boston’s mayor for trying to get tanker trucks off city streets. But how much of a solution is this if it simply takes the problem and dumps it on the suburbs?

“I understand they need to put them somewhere,’’ the 128 Business Council’s Tibbits said. “It seems to me not the most well-thought-out plan.’’

Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation is weighing the report. In 2006, Boston barred hazardous-materials trucks during the day, when the city’s population swells with commuters and tourists. But the ban was voided a year ago by federal officials, who said state and local governments had failed to justify the restrictions.

“MassDOT will review and carefully consider the report and continue to work cooperatively to resolve the matter,’’ said Richard Nangle, a spokesman for the state agency.

Some high-tech java hangouts Cambridge has its Voltage café, ground zero for the hyper-caffeinated tech entrepreneur.

But if you would rather skip the drive, the 128 corridor has a few java joints of its own that are favored by the tech crowd.

So what are the hottest hangouts for techies along 128?

Bobbie Carlton, organizer of Mass Innovation Nights, holds court every Friday morning from 8:30 to 10 a.m. at the Café on the Common in Waltham. The café is also a predictable hangout spot most weekday mornings as well, notes Chuck Tanowitz, a public relations guy who works with startups.

Other hotspots include Peet’s in Newton Centre and the Starbucks in Waban, Tanowitz said.

High-cost homes holding value Home prices have stayed fairly stable in communities along Route 128, despite the industry’s downturn in recent years.

But when it comes to sales of homes worth $1 million and up, it’s a mixed bag, according to a recent RE/MAX of New England report on the luxury market.

Wellesley saw the number of $1 million-plus sales plunge 32 percent in the first quarter of the year compared with the final three months of 2010. Yet the average price of homes over $1 million rose 7.8 percent, to $1.7 million.

The number of high-cost homes sold in Weston has stayed about the same over the past six months, even as the average price of those homes has soared past $3 million.

Meanwhile, Newton saw 29 homes worth more than a million sold during the first quarter, compared with 30 in the last three months of 2010. Prices of million-dollar properties were up slightly, by 0.2 percent, to an average of $1.6 million.

By comparison, Greenwich, Conn., home to one of the largest concentrations of hedge fund tycoons in the world, saw $1 million-plus home sales plunge 77 percent during the same time period.

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at

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