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Joan Vennochi

A road to peace for East Boston, Massport

Sure, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But did it really have to take 40 years to build a half-mile long access route for commercial traffic headed to Logan Airport?

This week, the Massachusetts Port Authority celebrated the opening of the two-lane, $23.5 million Martin A. Coughlin Bypass Road. It’s named after a longtime East Boston activist who first pitched the bypass concept back in 1972, as a way to keep cabs, buses, and 18-wheelers off Eastie streets. Forty years later — and 12 years after his death — Coughlin’s idea finally turned into a stretch of real highway.

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As his sister, Mary Coughlin Johnston, cracked in remarks delivered during Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony: “If Martin were here today, he’d say, ‘Why the heck did this take so long?’ ”

That question gets asked a lot around here. T.S. Eliot measured time in coffee spoons; Massachusetts still measures progress that way. Too often, politics plus revenge plus institutional inertia keeps wise proposals on the drawing board and off the streets, especially in Boston.

In this case, churn at the top was part of the problem, according to John Vitagliano, who embraced the idea first as a Massport board member. Through a succession of governors and Massport executives, “it was two steps forward and one step back,” explained Vitagliano, the chief consultant on the project that was funded with help from US Representative Michael Capuano and assorted state officials.

Coughlin’s idea languished during the era of deepest hostility between Eastie and Massport. For years, the airport grabbed what it needed and residents battled ferociously to hold onto what was left. Coughlin was among those who led the charge and kept up the fight.

To protest the noise and chaos, he stood in front of dump trucks heading for Logan in 1968. When airport opponents slowed traffic to a crawl by driving 5 miles per hour in 1969, he was part of the brigade. He was still fighting Massport in 1999, as activists tried — unsuccessfully — to stop Massport’s plans for a new runway. When Gloria Larson, then chairwoman of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, told a community meeting that delayed flights meant angry passenger arrivals in Boston, Coughlin yelled back: “I’m angry with 221,000 flights that are projected for my roof. You want angry? I’ll show you angry.”

When Coughlin died at 56 in November 2000, the late Globe columnist Alan Lupo wrote: “He tilted at windmills . . . He won a few. He lost a few. He stayed the course. He was an opponent of Logan Airport expansion and a proponent for preserving what he regarded as the best of his beloved neighborhood . . .”

On Monday, Thomas Glynn, the latest Massport CEO and executive director, said the new bypass road is a reminder of the most important relationship between Massport and East Boston: “neighbor.” The agency would strive to be “the good neighbor we’ve often been but not always been,” he told the crowd.

Does one moment of official truth-telling mean there’s now peace between neighbors?

“As much as there’s ever going to be,” said Sal Giarratani, an East Boston resident and columnist for the Boston Post Gazette, which bills itself as “the Italian American voice of Massachusetts.” Added Giarratani: “I don’t consider them the enemy, not like it was 30 years ago when people felt they had been invaded.”

Still, when Glynn kicked off the ceremony by introducing himself, Fran Riley, a longtime Eastie activist and Coughlin friend, shouted, “Everyone start yelling at him!” Her joke drew chuckles, because everyone knew the history.

Riley said East Boston’s relationship with Massport is “a lot more civilized” than it used to be. She attributes it partly to better faith on Massport’s part and partly to the activists’ understanding that you get “more with honey than vinegar.”

Problems arise, she said, whenever there’s “a power-hungry Massport and employees who think they can talk down to us and think we’re stupid — a big mistake.”

The old activists may be dying and a younger generation may be moving on. For those who remain, the airport is not their only concern. Riley said she and others are ready to fight a casino.

If it took 40 years to build a bypass road, imagine how long it could take to build a gambling mecca.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at Joan_Vennochi.
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