Local official renews fight for sound barriers in East Somerville

Interstate 93 (I-93) and the Inner Belt rail corridor in East Somerville and Charlestown are pictured on Nov. 21, 2015. The Mystic River appears in the middle ground. (Nick Allen / Wikimedia Commons)

Somerville officials have revived their push for the State of Massachusetts to erect sound barriers along a stretch of I-93 that passes through East Somerville.

Ward 1 Alderman Matthew McLaughlin has led multiple efforts by the Board of Aldermen to install the barriers between I-93 and the nearby neighborhoods. Most recently, McLaughlin introduced a resolution at the Jan. 12 Board of Aldermen meeting calling for sound barriers.

McLaughlin considers sound barriers a necessary part of Somerville’s health infrastructure. He explained that they would help alleviate the pollution concerns that he said were directly linked to I-93.

“There are studies that show that sound barriers can help reduce air pollution by up to 50 percent in areas that are within 100 feet of a highway,” McLaughlin told the Daily. “[I-93] is not even 100 feet away, [it] is right next to the community.”

The link between sound barriers and better health has been explored by researchers at Tufts before. The Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) group, which is co-chaired by Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine Doug Brugge at the School of Medicine, found that there is a correlation between highway proximity and risk of cardiovascular disease. These results were published in a 2013 article in the public health journal Environmental Health.

CAFEH recommended sound barriers as one method to alleviate these health concerns in neighborhoods bordering highways, according to a 2015 Daily article.

Brugge explained that air particulates are the primary issue associated with highway health. These ultra fine particles pour out of vehicle tailpipes and into the air, where they pose a public health threat to nearby individuals. Brugge said that sound barriers could play a role in preventing these negative effects.

“At least under some conditions, [sound barriers] reduce exposure, and it probably works best with locations that are close to the highway,” Brugge said.

Brugge added that factors such as airflow and wind could deflect dangerous particulates over and past the barrier, and expose more distant locations to the pollutants.

The fight for sound barriers stretches beyond pollution problems to the question of the ongoing Green Line Extension project, which will bring the Green Line to Somerville and Medford, according to McLaughlin. He noted that East Somerville has disproportionately high levels of cancer, which he attributed to highway pollution.

“We are owed the Green Line Extension from a lawsuit that was built around the East Somerville pollution,” McLaughlin said.

Originally, the Green Line Extension would have solved the pollution issue by cutting down on highway traffic, McLaughlin explained. He said that is no longer the case because traffic has increased since then.

“Now, even if we get the Green Line, its not going to mitigate the pollution that is happening in East Somerville,” he said. “So we need sound barriers to address the original problem.”

Another potential issue for the sound barriers is determining where to put them, according to Ellin Reisner, president of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership and co-chair of CAFEH.

“One of the things we learned [in CAFEH] is that you can’t just build a barrier without thinking about what the location is,” Reisner said, explaining that Massachusetts Highway 38 runs adjacent to I-93 in East Somerville. “If you were to put up the sound barriers [along I-93], you would still get pollution from route 38.”

Reisner added that sound barriers would help to mitigate some of the air and noise pollution coming from the interstate.

McLaughlin said that the the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) would be responsible for installing sound barriers. He said that MassDOT has rejected past attempts by the Board of Aldermen because sound barriers for pollution mitigation are outside of MassDOT’s regulatory power.

“[MassDOT] told [the Board of Aldermen] that it’s not in their regulations to build sound barriers for the purposes of air pollution because it’s not recognized to them as a legitimate purpose [for sound barriers],” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said that, even if MassDOT did recognize their use, the sound barriers would not likely be erected in East Somerville any time soon. He explained that the department maintains a list of locations scheduled to receive sound barriers based on highway construction.

“You’ll see a neighborhood get sound barriers because they’re reconstructing the highway,” McLaughlin said. “Until that happens, we don’t get it. And we’re not even on the list.”

McLaughlin said that the success of this renewed push for East Somerville sound barriers will again be ultimately determined by MassDOT. He said his plan to get around them depends on his ability to garner support locally and statewide. During the Jan. 12 Board of Aldermen meeting, he urged local residents to put pressure on state officials.

“We just need MassDOT to shake off this bureaucratic attitude that’s killing people — literally killing people [in East Somerville],” McLaughlin said.