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In front of the spiffy Zakim Bridge stands the North Washington Street Bridge, in need of intensive care. Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan

Tough Crossing

The bridge that carries some of Boston's most dangerous cargo is a mess. Will drivers ever get out of this jam?

By Monica Collins | January 2, 2005

Roll out the barrels, prepare for no fun. A rusty bridge is not exactly falling down, but the 1898 structure needs help, along with any reserve of motorist mettle left over from the Big Dig. Drivers painfully accustomed to Boston commutes littered with orange cones and warning signs and marked by detours and slowdowns have yet more to wince through.

The North Washington Street Bridge, formerly known as the Charlestown High Bridge, presents the latest aging infrastructure challenge. The connector to Interstate 93 bears about 66,000 vehicles a day between Charlestown and the North End. Overshadowed by the sleek Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, the clunky swing-span (built to pivot for passing ships, which it hasn't since 1962) is a crucial link on the hazardous-cargo route into and out of the city: It assumes the burden of the HAZMAT trucks banned from the tunnels under Boston.

Recently patched together with steel trusses, plates, and the veneer of an image polish from the Boston Public Works Department, the city-owned bridge needs to be rebuilt. Joe Casazza, BPW's longtime commissioner (and the guy in charge of pothole repair), says it will happen, but he doesn't know exactly when or how. He promises the bridge work will be painless. Unfortunately, there will be no vehicular Novocain when drilling begins.

For city drivers who must contend with a crude obstacle course of endless backups, leaky tunnels, Jersey barriers, and jagged sinkholes, reconstruction of the bridge will come with a price. Casazza estimates: "Twenty-five to 30 million in today's dollars, but God knows when the contract will pop." Let's hope before the bridge does.

Flashing arrows and the dreaded fluorescent barrels mark the approach to the beat-up span. The barriers close off two center lanes, which are condemned. Two-way traffic is directed to the outer double lanes. Along its trusses, strings of white lights glitter with scattershot symbolism. Many of the bulbs have burned out.

In 2003, an engineering firm, Purcell Associates, found the historic bridge, which once bore trains on an upper railway, unsafe for vehicles weighing more than 8,000 pounds - equivalent to a heavy SUV. Despite the advisory, the city continued to allow the HAZMAT trucks, weighing as much as 40 tons, to cross. Since then, $5 million to $6 million worth of repairs have reinforced the four outer lanes, according to Casazza. The commissioner, backed by Purcell, has declared the outer lanes passable for all legal-weight vehicles, including HAZMAT tankers. But the temporary fixes require ongoing maintenance to keep the span stable.

An overhauled bridge that uses the steel bones of the old is on the drawing boards at Purcell. Engineer Matt Card says the design is about half done. "We're kind of holding back until we get more feedback from the state," Card says. But at the Massachusetts Highway Department, spokesman Jon Carlisle says: "The ball's a little bit in [the city's] court. They have to design it first, and that's what they're in the process of doing."

Mass. Highway could decide that a better option is a new bridge - a possibility Casazza calls "remote." Assuming the state goes for the overhaul, which it would pay for, Card estimates the funds will be released in 2007. He says Big Dig leak repairs do not figure into the equation - hard to believe, considering how the knee bone is connected to the thighbone in the body politic.

Waiting for the go-ahead to rebuild the bridge tests Casazza's patience: "If we kept on waiting and waiting and waiting for these bureaucratic things to fall into place, we'd be waiting forever."

Any Boston driver already knows what "forever" feels like.

From The Boston Globe Magazine

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