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Honor Boston’s past by restoring the Northern Avenue Bridge

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The Northern Avenue Bridge over Fort Point Channel.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The decaying Northern Avenue Bridge, an industrial relic along Fort Point Channel, has survived long enough to become cool again. Built in 1908, the span looks like a Carl Sandburg poem in action, a lanky steel structure of the kind that used to gird waterways across the nation but are quickly disappearing. Not too long ago Bostonians might have seen the bridge as a gritty eyesore; now they’re just as likely to appreciate it as a steampunk reminder of the way industrial America used to be.

Mayor Walsh has a chance to keep it that way, by committing the city to restore the bridge for 21st-century uses, a project that would cost in the neighborhood of $40 million to $50 million and could involve a public-private partnership. As both a historical monument to Boston's industrial heyday and a much-needed transportation link, a restored bridge could be a great complement to the waterfront's modern rebirth as a thriving commercial district.

Originally built to carry steam trains hauling wool and fish from the South Boston wharves, the Northern Avenue Bridge closed to rail in 1970, car traffic in 1997, and to pedestrians in 2014. It's now one of only five swing bridges remaining in Massachusetts, and 121 in the United States, according to the Boston Preservation Alliance. Discussions about the bridge's future kicked into high gear after the Coast Guard warned the city that the structure was in imminent danger of collapse. The service wants the bridge fixed or removed, so that it won't pose a hazard to marine navigation.

The Walsh administration is kicking off a public process to solicit ideas, and says that restoring the 1908 bridge is still a possibility. Other options include building an entirely new fixed bridge in the same spot, but at a high enough elevation that boats can sail underneath, restoring only a part of the current swing bridge, or, the costliest option, restoring and raising the historic bridge. The thought of raising the bridge or building a higher-level span bothers pedestrian advocates, who'd prefer the keep the at-grade crossing. Any option would be expensive; just dismantling the current bridge and floating it out of Fort Point Channel would cost around $15 million.

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Restoring the historic structure, at its current, pedestrian-friendly elevation, would give the city the best combination of placemaking, transportation, and historic preservation. It would keep the rare triple-barrel truss bridge on the city's skyline, preserve a sense of history and personality in an area filling up with boxy office buildings, and help connect the walkways along the harbor and the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

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Originally, the bridge opened and closed by way of a unique pneumatic system that used compressed air to move the 283-foot span. Preservation advocates don't propose restoring the original mechanism, but do want a restored bridge to be operable. But the staff and machinery would be an added expense, and frequent openings could also reduce the bridge's usefulness as a transportation link.

If there's any need to save costs, reducing or eliminating the need for bridge openings would be the best place to start. The city should explore with the Coast Guard whether it would approve a restoration of the current bridge as a fixed structure. The Coast Guard has to ensure that any bridge meets the "reasonable needs of navigation," but it's at least worth discussing what's reasonable in an area where industrial traffic vanished long ago. As a practical matter, only sailboats would likely be affected if the bridge doesn't open; a permanently fixed bridge at the height of the current swing bridge would not keep kayaks and other small recreational boats out of the area.

Better ideas might come up during the city's planning process, and the more the Walsh administration does to involve the public, the better. But keeping the old Northern Avenue Bridge in some form offers a promising way to improve the waterfront's future while honoring its past.

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