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This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 8/6/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

New vision to preserve Northern Ave. Bridge is gaining momentum
By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 8/6/2003

City officials are mounting a new campaign to put the politically and structurally troubled old Northern Avenue Bridge back into service, complete with a glassed-in corridor for pedestrians and limited vehicular traffic.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who several years ago favored tearing down the rusty bridge, has changed his mind, believing that another connection to downtown will be needed to accommodate the development proposed for the South Boston Waterfront.

Keeping the Northern Avenue Bridge would put to rest years of political disagreement about what to do with the aging but historic structure, which is expensive to maintain. A replacement bridge was built nearby in 1996 and was named after the late Evelyn Moakley, wife of US Representative J. Joseph Moakley. Moakley wanted the old bridge torn down so as not to obscure or detract from the new span. But the congressman's death in 2001, the increasing number of development proposals for the area, and neighborhood lobbying to save the structure have altered the debate.

''We're trying to preserve the bridge,'' Menino said yesterday. ''The real challenge is to raise the funds to do it.''

US Representative Stephen F. Lynch is working to secure as much as $25 million in federal funding for the project, which would raise the bridge, built in the early 1900s, so it won't have to swivel open to accommodate boats.

''This bridge is going to be the entrance into some pretty fantastic development that's going to take place,'' said Boston Commissioner of Public Works Joseph Casazza, who assumed control of the project instead of the Boston Redevelopment Authority because it was considered more transportation than development. ''There's the Rose Kennedy Greenway on the other side. The bridge ought to be something special.''

Meanwhile, the city is considering a reuse of the bridge-tender's platform as a restaurant, museum, or some other commercial or nonprofit use. With the bridge raised, tenders will not be required.

''We'll be seeking other people's opinions,'' Casazza said yesterday. ''With a few bucks it could be one of the most fantastic venues. Its historic character has to be preserved.''

Some area residents and officials at City Hall are convinced now that as commercial activity on the waterfront increases there will be a serious demand for another connection to Atlantic Avenue and other city streets, as well as the Central Artery.

But the Moakley bridge is less convenient for many pedestrians because it is farther away from the main route of traffic along Boston Harbor and Northern Avenue, which is the location of the J. Joseph Moakley Courthouse. And the limited number of connections to the South Boston Waterfront has led to the city's newfound appreciation for the old span.

Menino said that traffic might be restricted eastbound, away from downtown, in the morning and westbound in the afternoon.

''We need another exit and entry to the waterfront,'' Menino said. Even today, ''sometimes if you're over there at 4 o'clock, you might as well stay till 7,'' because rush-hour traffic is so snarled. Weekends, he added, the bridge could be off-limits to cars, reserved for foot traffic.

John E. Drew, president and chief executive of the World Trade Center/Seaport Hotel, supports another cross-channel connection and said the plan looks promising.

''Joe's a man who knows bridges and how they work, but he went to the next level,'' Drew said, speaking of Casazza. ''He tried to capture some of the elements of glass and light -- he made it entertaining and fun.''

City officials said last month they plan to shut down the bridge altogether between mid-September and next spring so they can do about $300,000 in repairs and make it more pedestrian-friendly. Another $400,000 or so will be spent over the next few years, Casazza said, to upgrade the connection in the short run.

A large-scale fix -- for which federal funding would be required -- is a few years off. But Lynch and others in the Massachusetts congressional delegation are working to try to secure funding from federal transportation coffers in future years.

Lynch spokesman Matthew Ferraguto said yesterday that the congressman has submitted an appropriations request for $16 million in the next multiyear highway transportation funding bill.

Lynch and Representative Michael Capuano, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, are going to ''explore all options and come up with a viable plan'' for further funding, Ferraguto said.

Although city officials, representatives in Washington, and many in the neighborhood are on board, state officials, including Governor Mitt Romney, would have to approve and put up some of the funding. They have not so far been part of the discussion.

''It is a priority on the federal level,'' Lynch's spokesman said. ''It is incumbent on the governor to make it a transportation priority.''

Ferraguto said yesterday that Lynch also hopes to tap homeland security funds to help pay for the bridge. ''The Northern Avenue Bridge's proximity to the courthouse and the security needs of the inner harbor all lend legitimacy to our claim on federal funding,'' he said.

The congressional delegation has been working with the US Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration on the plan. A berth for Coast Guard use could improve the chances of securing federal funding, he noted.

''Given the support of the congressional delegation, we're optimistic that at some point we'll see the money for a permanent bridge repair,'' said Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association. However, she hopes the span is reserved for pedestrians. ''This bridge, since it's been closed to cars, has really been taken over by pedestrians,'' she said. ''It's been a wonderful link between the financial district and South Boston.''

The city received several proposals in 1999 for replacing or reusing the old bridge as a mall, but the Menino administration abandoned the idea and tentatively planned to tear it down. In the interim, the city added new lighting and a boardwalk to assist pedestrians.

Meanwhile, Casazza, the head of public works, is elated about the bridge's prospects.

''I'm having fun with this one,'' Casazza said. ''Usually I'm picking up trash and things.''

Casazza hired Schwartz/Silver Architects of Boston to do a rendering of the redeveloped bridge, to help others, including Lynch and Menino, envision what it might look like.

''We played the tune, and they kind of liked it,'' said Casazza.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 8/6/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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