Guest Op-Ed: It’s too Loud in Charlestown

By James Medeiros

What’d ya say? Can you speak louder?! That’s what it’s like trying to have a conversation when walking up Lowney Way by Peace Park.  The noise coming off the Tobin Bridge can be deafening.  I find myself searching for small spaces of relative quiet to get a few words in before the next sound assault is volleyed in the direction of Bunker Hill.

If you’re like most people, you’ll pause a conversation until you reach the tranquility of the Training Field, escape up a block like Mount Vernon or walk deeper into the Navy Yard.  For those living by the Tobin it’s something you learn to live with, just accept the reality of noise pollution created by a bridge bisecting a community with seemingly little regard for nearby residents. 

The issue has become worse since the pandemic or maybe I’m just home more often to take in the acoustic nightmare.  Less traffic means higher speeds for bouncing empty dump trucks rattling over metal bridge expansion strips, more of “The Fast and Furious” inspired after-market car exhausts speeding to nowhere and an unwelcomed spring addition of motorcycles firing out of the lower-level tunnel with unconscionable reverberation.  But the King George of obnoxious noise has to be the ROAR of semi-truck Jake Braking.  I’m sure you’d recognize the sound if you heard it, a pulsating machine-gun-like-pop of exhaust that blasts the neighborhood about 35 times each weekday.  I know because I’ve counted on more than one occasion.

Most people are aware noise pollution is annoying and a growing urban issue.  Simply put it’s a human hazard.  Many are surprised to learn about the mounting evidence that links noise to harmful physiologic effects including hypertension, ischemic heart disease, cognitive impairment in children and sleep disturbances. When viewed from this perspective, noise pollution is not merely a nuisance but a public health concern.  You can pile that nugget on top of the already well-documented health consequences of air pollution created by transportation emissions.

With the confluence of the Bunker Hill Housing Redevelopment (BHHR) and reconstruction of Peace Park using a $500K grant, an opportunity exists to highlight and address the neglected noise issue.  The 7-10 story BHHR buildings along Decatur Street will likely be at eye-level or above the bridge spans which is bad news for the folks living in those apartments.  Monthly Peace Park meetings hosted by the Charlestown Coalition on topics like “Race and Equity” require a microphone and speaker.  Think about that for a moment, you can’t hold critically important discussions in a public space without sound amplification.  We should no longer accept the status quo or “It is what it is” mentality concerning the conspicuous Tobin Bridge noise pollution.  

So, what can be done?  We can start by prohibiting Jake braking on the bridge with clearly posted signage and ticketed enforcement.  You may have already seen signs in other communities banning the practice of “Jaking.” Jake brakes use the pressure produced by engine combustion to slow down the vehicle.  Truckers preferentially use this method to save on maintenance costs associated with the wear and tear of traditional brake pads.  Jaking augments traditional braking especially for heavier trucks moving at higher speeds.  However, many trucks don’t Jake.  When traffic is free flowing, almost no truck follows the poorly posted speed limit of 45mph.  That’s right, the bridge speed limit is 45mph and trucks ought to travel slower to avoid use of Jake Brakes.  

Secondly, to address all the remaining complexities of sound pollution, the MassDOT should add the Tobin to its existing noise abatement program for review (“To be Studied”).  The MassDOT then can conduct a comprehensive evaluation to measure the impact of the noise on our community and what can be done to mitigate the disturbance in a cost-effective manner.  On first blush, engineering controls such as sound absorbing barriers seem feasible along Lowney Way/Peace Park to attenuate the amplification, reverberation, and reflections of sound as northbound traffic exits the tunnel. 

We see these sound barriers erected in affluent suburban communities with far less population density and further away from the highway sources.  Kudos to the Chelsea Council President Roy Avellaneda who fought for the permanent barriers now newly in place along the S-curves in Chelsea.  The time has come to stop ignoring the noise pollution permeating up our city blocks, into our homes and parks.  Although technically challenging, it can be done for Charlestown with a focused purpose, perseverance, partnerships and leadership.  Otherwise, don’t expect to hear the midnight ride of Paul Revere without a microphone and speaker.

For more information about sound mitigation efforts related to the Tobin Bridge contact: [email protected].

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