The Northern Avenue Bridge could soon fall down, and US Representative Stephen Lynch is ready to release $9.4 million in federal funding to help design a new one.
The city will need to match a portion of the money, but Lynch has been waiting more than a decade for Boston to do something about the century-old span. Last week, officials said they plan to start removing the dilapidated bridge in March after the Coast Guard raised concerns that it might tumble into the Fort Point Channel.
The Walsh administration will begin a formal public process this spring to decide whether to rehab the bridge or build a new one. The city has to do something after committing up to $100 million to replace the link as part of its agreement to woo General Electric Co.'s world headquarters to Boston.
Lynch is a former ironworker who built bridges and has been keeping tabs on the Northern Avenue structure because it's in his district. He isn't shy about what the city should do. He thinks it's time to retire a relic. This is not the moment to rebuild a steel swing bridge, a move preferred by some preservationists.
"No, not at this point," the South Boston Democrat said. "We should look at maximum utility."
Lynch said that means the city should build a new fixed bridge — one that does not have to open when boats pass underneath like the old span did. He also thinks that's what the Coast Guard would prefer. Swing bridges are old technology, and not too many folks are building them these days.
Lynch also wants the bridge to once again carry cars so the fast-growing Seaport District has another outlet for traffic. He said he recently had lunch with federal judges at the Moakley courthouse who raised concerns about gridlock during high-profile trials and its effect on security and public safety.
The congressman himself recently experienced the congestion when he it took him 40 minutes to get from his district office at the other end of the Southie waterfront to City Hall.
"I could have walked it," he said.
Lynch wouldn't be the first congressman from South Boston for whom the Northern Avenue Bridge holds no sentimental value. The late Joe Moakley — whose seat Lynch filled after his death in 2001 — famously was not a fan. At one of Southie's St. Patrick's Day breakfasts, Moakley brought along a box that contained proposals for the span — and then proceeded to pull out some dynamite, according to an Associated Press account.
The oft-told story goes that Moakley did not like the bridge because it blocked views of the Evelyn Moakley Bridge — named in honor of his wife. That span, built in 1996, connects the Financial District with the Seaport District and was meant to replace its Northern Avenue counterpart.
The Northern Avenue Bridge hasn't been structurally sound to carry cars since 1997, and then pedestrians lost access in December 2014 when city engineers had to abruptly shut down the structure because it could not bear any weight.
Mike Capuano is one local congressman who does not have an opinion on whether the bridge should be rehabbed. Capuano sits on the transportation committee and told me he'll go to bat for the city whatever it decides.
"The $9 million, it's a wonderful earmark," he said, but "it's not going to build a bridge."
The Somerville Democrat would like to see cars on the bridge, though he points out that it is unlikely to significantly reduce traffic given the configuration of roads in the area. Capuano would like to see the span remain pedestrian-friendly.
The city is still figuring out how it will pay for the project. It has tapped a tiny portion of the federal funding Lynch has secured and plans to use the rest. As soon as next month, the city will put out a request to the public to gather ideas on how to rebuild the bridge, followed by a public design process.
Chris Osgood, who oversees the city's departments of transportation and public works, said officials are looking for ideas that will improve access, have a sense of history, and create a space that connects the harbor, the channel, and the Greenway.
"We're looking at how to balance those goals," Osgood said. "We're taking a lot of steps to make sure preservation is a priority."
But one thing's for sure. Much to the ire of preservationists, the bridge needs to come down soon because it's in such poor condition.
Even iron and steel doesn't stand forever.