Historic waterfront span may be rebuilt as part of GE deal
Seaport improvements are weighed ahead of GE arrival
Tucked in the agreement to bring General Electric Co.'s global headquarters to Boston is a commitment from the city to spend as much as $100 million to reopen the Old Northern Avenue Bridge, while the state will kick in $25 million to improve roads, pedestrian walkways, and bike lanes throughout the Seaport District.
The money, city and state officials said Tuesday, is beyond what they publicly pledged to encourage the industrial conglomerate to relocate about 800 employees from its home office in Fairfield, Conn. The GE deal, announced last week, included up to $120 million in state subsidies for property and infrastructure expenses and as much as $25 million in tax breaks from the city.
The city has long wanted to rebuild the Northern Avenue bridge, built in 1908, to make it easier to get around the South Boston Waterfront.
City and state officials, who declined to be identified because the full GE agreement has not been publicly released, said they decided to allocate money for the bridge and other projects along the South Boston Waterfront to make their bid as attractive as possible.
The spending also would attempt to address an Achilles heel in the Seaport district — traffic — that worsened as the neighborhood emerged as one of the nation's hottest real estate markets.
Rick Dimino, who runs A Better City, a transportation advocacy group, has been sounding the alarm as the district's meteoric rise has outpaced its capacity to handle the throng of new companies and employees. The forecast: Over the next two decades, transit trips alone will grow by 64 percent and car traffic by 27 percent.
"The city and state putting resources regarding the GE decision is a huge step in the right direction," said Dimino, whose group managed a coalition of city and state agencies that together issued a report last year on the district's transportation needs. "Infrastructure investment will need to go hand-in-hand in filling out the rest of the South Boston Waterfront."
The city shuttered the Old Northern Avenue Bridge in December of 2014 after deeming it structurally unsafe to carry even pedestrians. The rusty steel bridge, which swings sideways to let marine traffic pass, is beloved by preservationists. It connected the Financial District to the South Boston Waterfront.
The city-owned bridge has been closed to vehicles for two decades. Over the years, there have been a half-dozen proposals to redevelop the bridge. Since it was closed, last year’s abrupt closure,the Walsh administration has been reviewing several options to fix the bridge that range in cost from about $30 million to more than $70 million. If the bridge could be reopened to cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists, it could go a long way to relieving congestion in the Seaport.
City officials would not say how they plan to pay for the bridge but added they were confident enough to include the project in the GE package.
Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog, said he is also confident about the city's ability to foot the bill. He noted that the city could take out bonds, find a way to wrangle some federal and state dollars, and even tap a portion of the city's $106.7 million parking meter fund. That money is for parking meter purchases and maintenance but can be used for other transportation-related expenses, too.
"GE coming to Boston probably made it a necessary improvement. It moved up the list," Tyler said.
But given the traffic woes of the district, fixing the bridge is something the city had to address soon.
"It's almost a situation they can't afford not to do," Tyler said. "It was going to be necessary, GE or no GE."
Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, whose group has been worried about the future of the bridge, cheered the city's efforts to move forward. Still, the alliance would like to see a "preservation-minded" reconstruction and repair of the bridge.
"I can think of no better example of the Northern Avenue representing evolution of both GE and Boston, from the transformation of old industry to modern high tech,'' he said. "The bridge would serve as the gateway to the Innovation District."
City officials could not say when they would begin a formal public process to vet bridge plans but added it would begin this year.
For its part, the state plans to commit about $25 million for infrastructure improvements near the new GE headquarters, according to the Baker administration.
Boston beat out 40 competitors to become the new global headquarters for GE. The company began looking for a new home in June after Connecticut lawmakers proposed to raise corporate taxes.
In their seven-month courtship, Boston and Massachusetts officials pushed the idea that the region's innovation economy would be a good fit for the century-old industrial giant trying to remake itself as a high-tech firm. By October, the GE search committee had begun to focus on properties in the Seaport District, lured by a mix of old warehouse buildings and gleaming towers all set along the waterfront.
The company has not yet picked a location for its headquarters but has been considering two Seaport sites, one on Summer Street and another on land owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority. Both are a fair distance from the Northern Avenue bridge, bolstering the idea that additional public funds are designed to benefit the district, not just one company.
The state is preparing to offer a menu of options that will narrow as planners look more closely at the needs of the area. For example, funds could go toward straightening intersections, increasing the frequency of service on MBTA Silver Line routes in the area, and designating more bicycle lanes.