Bridge design is a worry

Neighbors prefer aesthetic appeal

A rendering of the sort of vertical-lift bridge that state engineers prefer for Fore River. A rendering of the sort of vertical-lift bridge that state engineers prefer for Fore River. (Mass. Department of Transportation)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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As the state wraps up its environmental study of design alternatives for the new Fore River Bridge, Quincy’s leaders insist the new span should not only function well but also serve as an attractive entry point to the historic city.

The new bridge will have a significant impact on the growth of the Fore River area as “a vibrant economic hub, an active port, and commuter gateway to both Quincy and the South Shore,’’ said Quincy Mayor Thomas P. Koch.

While it manages maritime traffic on the river and Route 3A vehicular traffic above it, the bridge must also be designed as a landmark for those entering the city, Koch said. “I hope and trust that the Department of Transportation will give the same consideration to quality of design as it intends to do with the quality of engineering.’’

State transportation officials have been conducting an environmental assessment of designs for the new permanent bridge that will carry the busy corridor from Weymouth and communities south to Quincy and Boston. The review analyzes the ability of the vertical-lift and drawbridge types of construction to meet the needs of the site, but concrete plans are not yet under consideration. The current span is a temporary vertical-lift bridge built seven years ago as a short-term replacement for an older drawbridge-style structure that engineers said was wearing out beyond repair.

The state Department of Transportation is evaluating the alternatives for a “permanent, movable bridge’’ that will last 75 years. The current span carries 36,000 vehicles a day, and state engineers say their preferred alternative is a similar, vertical-lift type bridge that serves tall ships well and is cheaper to maintain.

While the need for a new bridge was determined by engineers almost two decades ago, funding for the estimated $255 million project had to wait for passage of the Patrick administration’s Accelerated Bridge Program Bond Bill.

Local officials and residents agree a new bridge is needed, but those in nearby neighborhoods say the bridge type favored by the state too closely resembles the current one, which they say looks like an “erector set.’’ Neighbors who turned out for meetings in Quincy on Jan. 13 and Weymouth last year said they favor a drawbridge design — also known as a bascule bridge — resembling the previous bridge built in 1936.

Gary Peters, a member of Fore River Bridge Neighborhood Association, said after the Jan. 13 meeting that the bridge’s Weymouth neighbors favor “a bridge design that takes into account the historical setting of the Fore River and rich history of the area — in other words, a drawbridge. This design has served the area well and should be continued.’’

He described the vertical-lift design favored by state transportation officials as “ugly and imposing.

“It will serve maritime and industrial interests and dwarf the neighborhoods,’’ Peters said.

Weymouth’s Historical Commission also recently voted for the “low impact’’ bascule design.

Some Quincy residents also worry that a vertical-lift bridge might prove “overwhelming’’ and look like “a huge monstrosity,’’ said City Councilor Daniel Raymondi. People at the Jan. 13 meeting expressed concern about traffic diverted into residential side streets during bridge construction, as well as about the size and scope of the bridge, he said.

But officials said the problem with the drawbridge design is that federal regulators who must approve the plans for the bridge want to widen the channel of the Fore River beneath the span by 50 feet to meet safety standards required for fuel tankers and other maritime traffic passing through.

“They want to widen the channel because there’s not enough room to get all the ships through,’’ said Quincy policy director Chris Walker.

And according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has to approve permits for bridges, that widened channel would require a bridge span longer than its safety standards allow for a drawbridge.

Officials at the Department of Transportation said they recommended the vertical-lift bridge after public hearings because it’s built higher above the water and requires fewer openings.

“One of the top concerns brought to our attention is that people want the bridge opened fewer times,’’ said department spokesman Adam Hurtubise. “In addition, a vertical-lift bridge is the more appropriate design for a span of this size. A bascule bridge of this size would be at the outer limits of acceptable design standards.’’

Given the controversy over the bridge’s design, Koch sought to transcend the disagreement between the two types of bridges. He said the vertical-lift bridge design can in fact look good if it’s built to high aesthetic standards.

As an example of an attractively designed vertical-lift bridge, Koch pointed to one under construction over a wide river in Bordeaux, France.

A picture of this bridge offered by the state earlier in its environmental assessment phase depicts a structure “that appeared far removed from anything resembling an erector set,’’ he said. A new bridge over the Fore River should not only promote the region’s economic growth but also be “an aesthetic jewel that meets its potential to spur investment and protect the value of surrounding neighborhoods.’’

Hurtubise said the state “understands and appreciates the mayor’s input’’ and will take appearance into consideration in choosing a design. The department “will continue to work with the surrounding communities to identify suitable architectural and aesthetic design criteria for the proposed vertical lift bridge,’’ he said.

Assurances like these are likely not to satisfy all the critics, for whom the size of the bridge’s central, vertical-lift section appears disproportional to its surroundings.

“A bridge is important, and we want it,’’ said Peters, adding his group’s position has not changed since the start of the state’s study a year ago. “We do not want a towering monument that is not needed.’’

Public comment on the environmental assessment can be made by Wednesday through the project’s website,

Robert Knox can be reached at