A BATTLE over rats is brewing in Boston as the city begins the initial stages of a $4.4 billion highway project. The 10-year Central Artery project, which calls for major excavation work, is expected to dislodge thousands of rats who live under the city. The state's rodent-control plan involves a combination of spreading rodenticides near construction areas, monitoring neighborhood sanitation, and educating city residents, says Bruce Colvin, the rodent-control consultant hired by the state.
City officials say the state's rodent-control program is inadequate and have submitted their own beefed-up plan to Beacon Hill. The seven-point proposal includes the hiring of six more city health inspectors, as well as widening the area above ground that is to be treated with rat poison.
``There is a large population in the ground of rats that hasn't even seen the light of day,'' says Sam Wood, the city's rodent-control director. He says the state needs to submit a plan in writing that would specify the area for spreading poison to a distance of 2,000 feet away from the construction zone. Mr. Wood is also concerned that the state is not starting an active rodent-control program in city neighborhoods early enough.
The state plan has no set limit on the size of city areas to be treated with rodenticides beyond construction zones, Mr. Colvin says. The size of these areas should be flexible, he says, and must vary with the geography of each neighborhood.
``You can't have a uniform approach. You can't draw a line and say this side, this side, and this side and work that way,'' says Claire Barrett, director of public affairs for the state Central Artery project.
The city's request to hire more health inspectors is still being negotiated with state transportation officials, Ms. Barrett says. But she adds the state's program is not geared to solve the problem by adding more people to the payroll.
Colvin says the state, which has never before launched such an extensive rodent-control program, will be introducing ``state-of-the-art technology.'' These practices, such as spreading rodenticides both at the subsurface and above ground levels, is expected to be more effective than traditional methods used in the city. In the past, the city has spread rodenticides only above ground.
``What we want to do is not repeat and continue the city's plan,'' Barrett says. ``I think it's a question of approach and not personnel.''
State officials complain that the issue has been getting undue news-media attention. They say recent articles in the national press have sensationalized the problem, making it seem that Boston's rodent problem is unique.
``Boston is no different than many other urban environments in the United States regarding sanitation and rodent problems,'' Colvin says. ``There has been a lot of construction in and around Boston over the past several years, and there have not been massive hordes of rodents.''
Some neighborhood residents, such as former City Councilor Fred Langone, are concerned. Mr. Langone is a lifelong resident of Boston's North End, a popular restaurant and tourist area. A major portion of the highway project will take place in that neighborhood, and many residents are worried about rodent control.
``When you hear a city agency say the state's not doing enough, what do the people think?'' Mr. Langone asks.
The newly built highway will transform downtown Boston by placing portions of the six-lane Central Artery highway underground. The artery is part of a regional freeway that connects the city to areas north and south.
The existing artery, which winds through the heart of Boston, has a high accident rate and carries more than twice as much traffic as it was originally built to handle. The new highway will be wider, will improve access, and will open up city land. Included in the plan is a new tunnel under Boston Harbor that will serve Logan International Airport. Major construction work for the Central Artery project is scheduled to begin in 1991.