A Monument to Long-Forgotten Community Activism: The Somerville Ghost Ramp to Nowhere

This Post is offered as a supplement the recent Climate Conversations, Episode 7: Reaching Carbon Neutrality in Somerville, MA by 2050.

The City of Somerville, Mass has a longstanding elephant in the room.  It seems nobody at City Hall wants to talk about it.  We never heard a peep about it during Climate Conversations, Episode 7.  What is it?  An Interstate highway making it dangerous for residents to breathe the air.

"And slicing through our eastern flank is Interstate 93—what Brad Rawson, Somerville’s head of transportation infrastructure, recently called “the elephant in the room” in terms of the city’s environmental legacy issues."

This situation was well-covered in an Article (http://scoutsomerville.com/air-grievances/) in Scout Somerville last year...

"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....

'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) [http://www.somervillestep.org/]....

The organization helped launch the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) study with Tufts University in 2009."

What does CAFEH Project Team have to say about the dangers from the soot-laden air in the area?

"Studies have shown that living near highways is linked to higher rates of heart disease, asthma, and lung cancer.  People living near highways who breathe in this pollution may suffer illness and premature death as a result.  Even blocks away from highways, pollution may still cause health problems.  Residents of these communities have the right to environmental justice and air-quality protection."

The most dangerous part of the soot pollution is the very small "PM" (particulate matter) in the air...

"Students and researchers collected blood samples... to examine how and to what degree [residents] 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."

But, the Interstate is already running through Somerville and has been there for decades.  How to solve this problem?  If you ask Ward 1 Alderman Matt McLaughlin, he says build walls to keep the spread of the pollutants down.  You have seen these before; the sound barrier walls next to major roadways and interstate highways, sometimes heavily landscaped and sitting upon pleasant-looking grass burms.  Seems like a good start, so what could be the problem?

"[The Commonwealth] only builds retrofitted sound barriers for noise issues, not pollution, and the projects are doled out to a waiting list based on priority."

So, Somerville languishes in poisoned air.

"'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 [extension], and I can’t even get sound barriers to deal with this problem in the short term.'"

But, the fight for environmental justice wasn't always this frustrating in Somerville.  Once upon a time, the people of Somerville rose-up and actually stopped another piece of highway from coming into the City.  There is a monument that stands in commemoration of this grassroots environmental justice effort of the past... the Somerville Ghost Ramp to nowhere on I-93.

"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...."

Yes, in 1971, strong community-led opposition to the construction of an I-93 connector (to a planned I-695 Inner Belt) was successful!  Construction was halted - permanently.  Somerville was spared.  Environmental justice was had.

"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 [I-695] Inner Belt...."

This story paints a picture of the differences between today's notion of community activism and that of the 1970's.

During Climate Conversations, Episode 7: Reaching Carbon Neutrality in Somerville, MA by 2050 we heard nothing of this major environmental health issue plaguing Somerville.  We did, however, hear about planting a tree in a park.  Oddly, that park is reportedly the location within Somerville carrying the highest risk of exposure to dangerous PM levels in the air.

Conversely, steadfast and coordinated community efforts in the 1970's stopped a federally-funded interstate highway project from coming to fruition.  This was community-based environmental activism at its finest.  It was also successful.

There's lots to be learned from this example from the past.  Environmental justice is possible.

Success in community activism is had through unwavering commitment to seeing the job through to the end.  Ironically, the towering monument to this notion (in the greater Boston area) is the uncompleted off-ramp on northbound I-93 in Somerville.