When Marty Walsh announced that he wanted to rebuild the Long Island Bridge so addiction recovery services could return to the island, people in Quincy reacted like he had thrown a stink bomb.
The mayor of Quincy, Tom Koch, spoke for virtually every pol in Quincy when he said rebuilding the bridge was a bad idea. Koch contends that a new bridge will terribly inconvenience the good people of the Squantum section of Quincy, presumably because buses and vans carrying “drug addicts” will use the streets on their way to and from the island.
The operative words here, of course, are drug addicts. The opposition isn’t really about traffic. It’s about people addicted to opioids. Before the bridge closed, many of them were picked up or dropped off at some of the Quincy MBTA stations by the various recovery programs on the island. No one wants them. They are not a constituency. And so politicians fiddle while those struggling with addiction burn, an average of six of them dying of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts every day.
Marty Walsh took a lot of heat when he closed the decrepit bridge in 2014 after engineers told him it was on the verge of collapsing. The evacuation of the island was a chaotic debacle. More than 300 people who were in various recovery programs on the island were scattered like so many ashes. Some of them went back to the streets and died.
Walsh, a recovering alcoholic who gets this stuff intuitively, should be lauded for trying to rebuild the bridge and treat those with addictions. And other mayors such as Koch should be thanking the city of Boston for treating people from their communities. The last time I checked, many of the people who congregate at the Dantean intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard are not from Boston.
The state has about 900 detox beds, but the real problem is the lack of step-down beds for long-term treatment, up to three months, which offers the only realistic chance to get clean. There’s only about 400 of those in the state, and Walsh’s plan to create a recovery campus on Long Island has the potential to double that number.
Those like Koch who propose a ferry service to transport those seeking services to Long Island are flogging an unrealistic alternative. Not only would it be dangerous to transport some of the patient population by ferry, but insurance companies typically won’t reimburse for care if there is no emergency responder access, and that’s by land, not by sea.
Merredith Cunniff, my cousin’s daughter and one of the nurses who heroically evacuated 60 people from Andrew House when the bridge was summarily closed, is heartsick about Quincy’s opposition to rebuilding the bridge. She lives in Quincy, is a recovering addict who left a better paying job to work with others fighting addiction, and says that all of the politicians who oppose rebuilding the bridge had helped her. She praised Koch for helping open Phoenix House, a treatment facility in Quincy where she once worked. She treated many Quincy residents on Long Island. A couple of years ago, her 17-year-old son was seriously injured when his car was rear-ended by a Quincy man under the influence of opioids.
Last week, when she heard Marty Walsh’s speech, Cunniff cried.
“I think that rebuilding the bridge is a chance at redemption for the politicians,” she said. “I was treated and got healthy and became a productive member of society. Everyone deserves the chance I got.”
Merri Cunniff put a petition on change.org. By Monday, more than 7,200 people had signed it, saying they want the bridge rebuilt. Scanning the comments for why these people want the bridge rebuilt was both inspiring and heartbreaking. Some of them got clean on Long Island and are still sober. Many others lost loved ones to opioids.
A woman from Sharon said she signed the petition because “My cousin was one of the patients that needed to leave. We lost him 11 days later.”
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.