Guest Op-Ed: Renovating the North Washington Street Bridge

When Bostonians were told that it would take about three years to complete the reconstruction of Longfellow Bridge, connecting the Charles St/MGH area of Boston to Cambridge, we grumbled, but we understood. With the contract awarded in 2013, the project was scheduled to be complete in the summer of 2016, after which life would return to normal and we could again get to Kendall Square and beyond without incident. We figured that three years of ongoing construction was the price we’d pay for a job well done.

We all know what really happened. Three years became four, and eventually five. Construction made both ends of the bridge chaotic and noisy. Constant delays were the norm. Other arteries were negatively affected as commuters and others—like anyone who uses now ubiquitous traffic apps like Waze—found alternate routes to avoid the Longfellow. Traffic along Storrow Drive worsened as West End residents were forced to use it to find another way to cross the Charles.  A community that had prepared for a three-year, $255-million project instead found the timeline nearly doubled and the budget ballooning to $306.6 million- more even than the $303 million the state had set aside for a worst-case scenario.

This is why I am so concerned about the city’s plan to renovate the North Washington Street Bridge. Yes, anyone who crosses it knows the bridge is in need of repair or replacement. But we’re being told that this project will take five years—so should we assume that this will take seven or eight years to finish? What, exactly, are the state and the city prepared to do to address the tremendous impacts on residents’ quality of life and businesses’ losses related to access that come with bridge reconstruction like this? It is vital that residents tell City Hall, MassDOT and the Governor that we cannot afford a repeat of the Longfellow Bridge boondoggle here in Charlestown and the North End.

The North Washington Street Bridge is not just the primary connection between the North End and Charlestown—it’s the only connection. More people, more small businesses, and more homes sit on either end of this single connection, and all of us stand to lose more from at least five years of noise and construction. The disruption to peoples’ lives, businesses, and quality of life will be as bad as the worst these neighborhoods experienced during the Big Dig. This means we need to see a renewed effort from the state, the city and the contractor to keep the scope of construction focused, speedy, and minimally disruptive.

What would such an effort look like? Here are some important things that should be done to prevent a repeat of Longfellow Bridge:

Project managers were surprised that the condition of the Longfellow Bridge was worse than they expected, but they didn’t learn of the deterioration until after construction had commenced.

How do we know that this complex replacement project won’t encounter similar difficulty? Building a temporary span, removing and then replacing bridge abutments in contaminated underwater soils where underground conditions really can’t be known until the digging begins presents any number of challenging variables. Can local residents and businesses rely on current planning and design? Based on the Longfellow, our confidence is low.

MassDOT, the Walsh Administration and J.F. White must make it clear who has responsibility for the North Washington Street Bridge reconstruction. Who are the foremen on duty? Who can residents and local businesses talk to about construction impacts, noise complaints, or construction taking place beyond allowable hours? And will our concerns be met with action, or indifference and apathy?

MassDOT and the City need to better explain to us how they are anticipating possible challenges, what the workarounds will be, and why we can take confidence in their promises.

The concern of folks getting to work on time in this area is crucial for local commerce. MassDOT should strongly consider the contractor push their proposed work start time back to 9 a.m. This will ensure traffic flow can smoothly function in the morning hours to allow commuters from all directions to be able to arrive to work on time. It is consensus in the Navy Yard business community that this will behoove all who traverse through the corridor in the morning hours.

Bridge replacement in an old and congested urban environment is difficult. We know that not everything will proceed exactly as planned. That said, residents on either end of the bridge should be able to expect some basic things from their government and the entities hired with their tax dollars: responsiveness, transparency, timeliness and professionalism. The North End and Charlestown lived through the Big Dig and the Longfellow replacement. Both took their toll, and both provided benefit once complete. We need to have a strong and unified voice if we expect the state, the city and the contractor to treat us with respect. Chris Pfohl is a Charlestown resident

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