NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

September 12, 2013

Politicians vow to have sound barriers installed on I-95

Issue has ramifications for mayor's race

By Dave Rogers
Staff Writer

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Dissatisfied with MassDOT’s decision not to build new and improved noise barriers along Interstate 95 near Laurel Road and Ferry Road, area lawmakers announced yesterday they will be lobbying the state to reverse its decision.

Newburyport state Rep. Michael Costello and state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives said there was plenty of time to convince highway officials of the need to abandon the state’s plans to move the existing barriers about 20 feet closer to residential homes. Both Costello and O’Connor Ives are expected to discuss their strategies to affected residents during a meeting with MassDOT resident engineer Ernie Monroe on Monday at 5 p.m. inside City Hall. Also expected to attend are Mayor Donna Holaday and mayoral candidate Greg Earls.

In recent weeks, the state has cleared numerous trees, shrubs and overgrowth as part of the roughly $300 million project to replace the aging Whittier Memorial Bridge and rehabilitate eight additional bridges to accommodate the widening of Interstate 95 in Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury. The biggest component of the project will involve 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.

In order to widen the highway, MassDOT is pushing a 40-year-old concrete sound barrier closer to several Laurel Road and Ferry Road homes, much to the displeasure of homeowners who have been lobbying for a new, taller wall.

Costello said the most recent timetable doesn’t see the sound barrier moved and replanted for several months, if not longer. That gives him and O’Connor Ives time to work behind the scenes to convince MassDOT to change course and build a better barrier.

“We’re going to push very hard,” Costello said yesterday.

During a public hearing held last year, a MassDOT official said the agency followed a cost-effectiveness plan that took into account the number of people affected and set a limit for how much should be spent per affected household. The DOT contended that not enough people live in the Laurel Road neighborhood to make protecting them a cost-effective plan.

In an email, MassDOT spokesman Michael Verseckes said there are no plans to construct additional noise barriers within the project limits.

Yesterday, O’Connor Ives said she wasn’t satisfied with MassDOT’s response to neighborhood concerns and was in the process of speaking to others on Beacon Hill to see if more can be done.

“In my opinion, that doesn’t suffice,” O’Connor Ives said, of MassDOT’s announcement.

Mostly quiet for over a year, neighbors have ramped up their efforts considerably since MassDOT removed a wide and long swath of vegetation, spilling sound into their neighborhood.

The issue has also taken on a political context, as Newburyport voters prepare to go to the polls on Tuesday to vote in a mayoral preliminary election involving Holaday, Earls and Richard Sullivan, Jr.

According to an email sent to The Daily News by Earls, neighbors have been contacting him for more than a week urging him to take action after feeling City Hall was not responding to their concerns. That prompted Earls, who wants to succeed Holaday as mayor, to contact O’Connor Ives’ office, which then began organizing a meeting with affected residents. Early attempts to arrange a meeting failed due to scheduling conflicts, but by Tuesday, the meeting had been confirmed for Monday.

Earls acknowledged yesterday that his council district does not include the Laurel Road/Ferry Road area but said his connections with O’Connor Ives made it easy for him to act as a facilitator between residents and O’Connor Ives.

“It was easier for me to call,” Earls said.

Reached yesterday, Holaday said she hadn’t received any phone calls or emails from Laurel Road and Ferry Road residents since the loss of vegetation and added that if residents had contacted her staff, she’d be informed.

Holaday went on to dispute Earls’ contention that she might not be doing enough to help, saying she and her staff have been actively and aggressively working with MassDOT over the last three years and was equally disappointed when told by the state that it would not be spending money on a new sound barrier.

Holaday provided a letter she sent 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.

“The existing decades-old wall is generally considered to be inadequate — not high enough to block the views and noise of trucks and not long enough to provide protection for all the residences,” Holaday wrote.

Holaday said she was still waiting for a response.

O’Connor Ives said Monday’s meeting will give abutters a chance to meet Monroe and put a face to a name. Residents will be able to be added to a weekly email blast from MassDOT that highlights upcoming work surrounding the Whittier Bridge, I-95 project. It is hoped that Monroe will be able to give residents an idea when vegetation will be replanted as a sight and sound barrier.

But also, O’Connor Ives said, she wanted to give residents the latest news in her and Costello’s campaign to get the state to invest money in a new and improved sound barrier wall. O’Connor Ives said if the state was going to spend $8 million for a shared use path, it could surely spend an estimated $400,000 to erect a better sound barrier.

“I want the neighbors to know we’re not happy with their (MassDOT) decision and we’re going to advocate,” O’Connor Ives said.