By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Ferry Road and Laurel Road residents long concerned with traffic noise coming from Interstate 95 are one step closer to seeing some progress on their behalf, the mayor’s office announced recently.
Mayor Donna Holaday said she has been granted approval from federal transportation officials to negotiate with the company overseeing the Whittier Memorial Bridge replacement project.
The project — considered one of the largest highway jobs in the state — involves demolishing the 58-year-old, six-lane span connecting Amesbury and Newburyport over the Merrimack River and replacing it with an eight-lane bridge with four lanes on each side. It is expected to be completed in 2016. The project also includes rehabilitating eight additional bridges to accommodate the widening of I-95 in Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury. It also includes the replacement or reconstruction of eight nearby bridges along I-95 in Newburyport and Amesbury and widening I-95 between exit 57 in Newburyport and exit 60 in Salisbury.
It has long been Holaday’s hope that due to the city’s willingness to allow Walsh-McCourt to use city property as a staging area for the roughly $300 million project free of charge, the company would be willing to build a new fence or wall between Interstate 95 and the Pine Hill neighborhood.
For more than seven months, the roaring traffic coming from Interstate 95 has become even louder for nearby residents after the state cleared numerous trees, shrubs and overgrowth that, in concert with a sound barrier wall, buffered them from traffic-generated noise pollution, according to at least one homeowner.
The mayor’s action is separate and in addition to MassDOT’s announcement last October that it would be tearing down an aging sound barrier along Interstate 95 near the Pine Hill neighborhood in Newburyport and replacing it with a modern wall, according to Peter Lombardi, the city’s director of policy and administration.
While narrower than the nearly 40-year-old wall, MassDOT’s wall would be of the same height and lack the sound-proofing qualities residents have been fighting for. For more than a year, MassDOT officials have stressed that new noise barriers are built as a result of a formula that takes into account the number of homes benefited, the total cost of construction of noise barrier and the average reduction of noise in the affected area. The rule of thumb to make a noise barrier feasible, reasonable and cost-effective is $8,400 or less per each decibel decrease, per each “benefited receptor” — usually a residence.
But Lombardi said that any separate agreement with Walsh-McCourt can be made without having to meet the federal noise impact formula referenced by MassDOT.
Reaching an agreement with Walsh-McCourt has long been on Holaday’s radar since drafting a letter to MassDOT acting district 4 highway director Paul Steadman dated Aug. 26, formally requesting MassDOT’s approval for a higher and longer barrier wall that would be paid for by bridge contractor Walsh-McCourt as compensation for its use of land off Spring Lane for a staging area.
Last week MassDOT spokesman Michael Verseckes wrote in an email that his agency is aware of the city’s interest in reaching a third-party agreement with the contractor.
“If MassDOT is presented with a concept that is consistent with the project’s base technical concept, adheres to highway safety regulations, and can be achieved at no cost to the agency, MassDOT will take it into consideration,” Verseckes wrote.