By Dave Rogers
---- — AMESBURY— Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials are expected to brief the public about the latest on its massive Whittier Memorial Bridge construction Oct. 23 during a public forum at 7 p.m. at Amesbury High School.
In the process, MassDOT officials are likely expecting numerous complaints from nearby residents fed up with the state’s insistence that it will not replace a series of decades-old sound barriers with more efficient ones as part of the multi-million dollar project.
The topic of noise pollution and the state’s unwillingness to spend money on improving existing sound barriers has reached Beacon Hill, as local lawmakers recently announced they found MassDOT’s position unacceptable and would go over its head to voice their concerns.
So far, however, the concerns of state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives and state Rep. Michael Costello, both Democrats, have done little to alter MassDOT’s position, at least publicly.
Last month, O’Connor Ives arranged a meeting between Beacon Hill lawmakers and residents living close to Interstate 95 near Laurel Road and Ferry Road. But that meeting was abruptly canceled after O’Connor Ives feared the informational gathering had become a mayoral campaign issue. The meeting would have included an appearance by MassDOT project manager Ernie Monroe, who would have updated affected residents and resolved issues related to construction.
According to Ferry Road resident Sarah Pratt, she and about 10 other Laurel Road and Ferry Road residents recently met with Monroe at the job site, essentially fulfilling his intention of meeting residents.
Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday has been turning up the heat as well, 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.
“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.
For more than a month, the roaring traffic coming from Interstate 95 has become even louder for Laurel Road and Ferry Road 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 clearing work was part of the roughly $300 million project to replace the iconic yet aging bridge and rehabilitate 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.
The project — considered one of the largest highway jobs in the state — 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 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 since the project was first unveiled.
MassDOT spokesman Michael Verseckes recently reiterated that the state had no plans to upgrade sound barriers, repeating earlier statements 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 constructing 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.
“Based on the existing conditions of the area and the number of homes that are affected, the formula produces a cost figure of $56,549 to build a noise barrier to effectively reduce noise. This is nearly seven times higher than our threshold to require a noise barrier as part of the project,” Verseckes said.
Verseckes called the upcoming design meeting and all similar meetings held by MassDOT an opportunity for the agency and its contractor to establish a direct link to residents of the three communities as well as neighbors of the project.
“With a project this size, we fully expect a wide-ranging discussion of any and all topics related to the project,” Verseckes said.
Pratt, who lives mere yards from a recently installed construction gate, said she was 100 percent certain someone from her neighborhood would bring up the sound barrier issue at the meeting.
“But I don’t think they’re going to tell me anything spectacularly good,” Pratt said.