THE ARTHUR FIEDLER footbridge is named for a beloved conductor and links two of Boston's most vital public spaces. And yet the bridge brings no joy at all. Crossing from the Charles River Esplanade over Storrow Drive toward the western corner of the Public Garden involves disorienting changes of direction on both ends of the narrow bridge. As bicyclists bump into runners, and as runners bump into walkers, it's hard to remember that the Public Garden and Fiedler's former haunt, the Hatch Shell, are only a few hundred yards apart.
Now Mayor Menino is asking the right question: Is this the best we can do? In a recent speech before the Municipal Research Bureau, Menino floated a grand idea - replacing the footbridge with a broader, gentler, and greener passage over Storrow Drive. The details are gauzy. But designed well, the new bridge could be as wide as the Commonwealth Avenue mall.
The mayor comes to the issue late, and he is kibitzing; Storrow and the Esplanade are owned not by the city, but by the state. The Department of Conservation and Recreation has considered several long-term options for fixing the crumbling Storrow Drive Tunnel, which funnels eastbound traffic beneath westbound traffic and ends near the footbridge. Last year, Commissioner Richard Sullivan called for rebuilding the existing tunnel, at a cost estimated at $50 million to $55 million.
But that issue needn't be settled just yet. This year, $6 million to $10 million in interim repairs will begin - and will buy time to consider Menino's intriguing idea.
In an interview, Sullivan said an extensive planning process already has occurred. "I think it's fair to say," he argued, "that just about any option that anybody could come up with was discussed." DCR did consider an option philosophically similar to Menino's - a proposal that would have added new greenspace to the Esplanade by building new tunnels beneath it - but the pricetag was a staggering $216 million.
Menino's administration figures that its bridge idea would cost much less. The mayor maintains that DCR focused mainly on transportation issues. "The only thing before us at the time," Menino said, "was the repairs of the tunnel."
He is right to reframe the question in terms of improving public space. Menino's idea wouldn't necessarily preserve every last element of the current traffic network. One option could be to close the entrance to eastbound Storrow Drive along Mugar Way - freeing up a strip of land where part of the new passageway could be built. The inconvenience to motorists would be minimal, because there's another eastbound entrance just a block away at Berkeley Street.
Menino owes it to DCR and the public to put flesh on his idea quickly - and to identify public and private revenue sources that might be available to pay down any added costs. But exploring these issues is worth a little more time. The Storrow reconstruction offers an opportunity to turn a ho-hum tunnel project into a jewel for the city.