Before the GLX, There Was I-93

STEPSTEP's Wig Zamore (right) talks local transportation with a visitor at last year's ArtBeat. Photo courtesy of STEP.

Mayor Curtatone’s challenge to Wynn is only the latest in Somerville’s storied environmental past.

Ellin Reisner first became concerned over the air quality in her East Somerville neighborhood because of the soot that would collect on the side of her house. Now, having lived within coughing distance of I-93 for 17 years, she’s learned when to spend time outside and when not to—namely, during rush hour. She never opens the front windows of her house because they face the highway, and she and her husband use high grade filters in their air conditioning system—a precaution she says isn’t cheap.

“People have been paying the price of this pollution for years,” says Reisner, who since moving to East Somerville has become an active member of Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP). For the past several years, STEP has advocated for transportation improvements in the area. The organization helped launch the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) study with Tufts University in 2009.


An aerial view of I-93 and the Inner Belt rail corridor in East Somerville. Photo by Nick Allen.

Air quality issues made headlines earlier this year when Mayor Joseph Curtatone moved to appeal Wynn Resorts’ environmental permits, which would allow the developer to break ground on a casino just across the Mystic River in Everett. Curtatone, who came out against the state’s moves to legalize casino gambling in 2011, says he filed the appeal over concerns about the health costs Somerville residents would shoulder from the 18,000 additional vehicle trips per day the casino would attract.

To the uninitiated, Curtatone’s appeal might seem like a last-ditch effort to keep gambling out of his backyard. But justified or not, it’s the latest in a long saga that has found Somerville footing Greater Boston’s environmental bill.

Somerville is built like a rust-belt city. But thanks to its proximity to other municipalities, its density and the sheer resilience of its people, it has avoided some of the problems now plaguing other cities, like Detroit, that were built around manufacturing. Nonetheless, it carries the burden of that legacy. Some may remember the trash incinerator in Brickbottom that used to put white flakes in children’s hair. Others might recall, more recently, the $300,000 grant awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up brownfields in Union Square and East Somerville. And slicing through our eastern flank is Interstate 93—what Brad Rawson, Somerville’s head of transportation of infrastructure, recently called “the elephant in the room” in terms of the city’s environmental legacy issues.

Those who commute to Boston from points north on I-93 have likely seen Somerville’s ghost ramp. The unfinished stretch of road is like a vestigial limb of a past America, a testament to the massive power wielded by urban planners during the mid-20th century, as well as the force of The People to stop them. In the shadow of World War II, federally subsidized highways webbed their way across the country, until a culture shift during the the 1970s stalled their growth.

After decades of unregulated industry, people started to notice the adverse health effects caused by pollution, and President Nixon signed legislation introducing regulatory agencies like the EPA. Citizens also began to reject the on-high attitudes of urban planners, protesting and ultimately halting projects like the Inner Belt, a major highway project in the Boston area that would have cut right through many neighborhoods, including Central and Inman Squares in Cambridge.

By the time then-Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent placed a moratorium on building highways, I-93 had been planned and approved. Homes were razed and construction was completed. Now, 150,000 vehicles travel over the elevated highway every day, spewing sound and pollution onto the houses that border the roadway.

“When they did the studies for I-93, they knew that the lead would go up by a factor of four in the neighborhoods along I-93, to way above any reasonable level,” says Wig Zamore, who works with STEP to advocate for air quality issues. By the time it was built, the state was moving funds away from highways and into public transit. But federal money had already been committed, so officials pressed on with the construction of I-93.

“Boston and Cambridge remember [the time] as a watershed, positive event,” says Zamore. “In Somerville they had already gotten some commitment of federal funds, and the state decided to go ahead with I-93 notwithstanding the studies that showed it to be detrimental.”

I-93Since then, researchers have learned a great deal more about the repercussions of living so close to a major roadway. Zamore, Reisner and a group of community leaders and student researchers from Tufts University drove the 2009 CAFEH study, which looked at residents near highways in East Somerville, Dorchester and Chinatown.

Students and researchers collected blood samples and activity reports from residents in these three communities to examine how and to what degree they were being exposed to ultrafine particles—miniscule pollutants that have been linked to higher rates of cardiovascular diseases and death. After these particles are dispersed into the air, they tend to accumulate, becoming larger and therefore less likely to be breathed in. That means that residents living right next to the highway are at a much higher risk of inhaling the toxins when they are in their smallest and most dangerous form.

The EPA regulates air pollution, but only at a regional level. The ill effects of ultrafine particles drop off just a few hundred meters away from the highway, so taking those measurements and averaging them out over all of New England doesn’t shed light on the problem, according to Zamore. The resource-strapped EPA would have to be working on the municipal level, and coordinating with Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns—not to mention those in other New England states—would be a costly, time-consuming endeavor.

It’s unclear what kind of mitigation will bring relief to those with I-93 in their backyards. Ward 1 Alderman Matt McLaughlin says he’s advocating for sound barriers, which would push air and pollution up above abutting homes and reduce exposure. But the state only builds retrofitted sound barriers for noise issues, not pollution, and the projects are doled out to a waiting list based on priority. That makes McLaughlin angry.

“That’s unacceptable to me,” says McLaughlin. “All of our state reps are supportive of it. It’s frustrating when you see how we’re dragging on the Green Line, and I can’t even get sound barriers to deal with this problem in the short term.”

Reisner and Zamore each see other paths to safer air quality for residents. Zamore would like to see better regulation of these microparticles. Reisner says that sound barriers are great, but she’s hoping for a program that helps residents near the highway get high-grade filters into their homes.

Somerville seems poised to face its environmental legacy. Mayor Curtatone’s challenge to Wynn is a line in the sand—or, perhaps more accurately, a line in the soot. And earlier this year, the city released a greenhouse gas inventory to help it move toward carbon neutrality.

The future here looks green—if we can find a way to clean up the past.

This story originally appeared in our May/June print edition, which is available for free at more than 150 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription