Temporary span is raising frustration on South Shore

The Fore River Bridge's replacement a long way off

Vehicles traveled along Fore River Bridge, linking Quincy and Weymouth, last week. The vertical lift bridge has caused frustration in the community. Vehicles traveled along Fore River Bridge, linking Quincy and Weymouth, last week. The vertical lift bridge has caused frustration in the community. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / July 21, 2008

QUINCY - When the Fore River Bridge is raised to allow ships to pass, traffic grinds to a halt outside Patina's Hair Design, a half-mile from the bridge, and the line of stalled cars extends several blocks beyond it up Washington Street. But Pat Vegnani, the salon's owner, said the gridlock bothers her less than the persistent and ominous rumbling of the bridge.

"I just wish they'd hurry up and do something," Vegnani said. "It's scary."

Such is life in Weymouth and Quincy: massive traffic tie-ups, and banging and clanking sounds from the temporary vertical-lift bridge over the Weymouth Fore River estuary.

The community's frustrations are partly a legacy of the Big Dig. Heavy debts left by the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project have sucked away billions of dollars from other long-awaited projects across the state, including construction of a permanent replacement for the Fore River Bridge, which carries Route 3A, a crucial South Shore artery, between Quincy and Weymouth.

The Globe reported last week that $7 billion in additional interest payments have pushed the total Big Dig cost to $22 billion, and that hundreds of millions of dollars in debt payments every year will continue through 2038.

In the case of the old Fore River Bridge, a concrete and steel drawbridge erected in the 1930s, officials were talking about the eventual need for repair or replacement at least by the early 1980s, when the Big Dig was in the planning stage.

By the time they got around to Fore River, the bridge could no longer be rehabilitated or replaced at once. Instead, the state built a roughly $60 million temporary bridge, which opened in 2004, then dismantled the old one. A permanent replacement is expected to cost more than $150 million and open in 2020.

As early as January 1999, state Senator Robert L. Hedlund questioned whether the Big Dig, then thought to cost $10.8 billion, was siphoning money from Fore River and other projects.

On Friday, Hedlund said he has been continually frustrated by mismanagement and poor financial decisions that contributed to the state's nearly $20 billion, 20-year shortfall for all of its transportation projects - as estimated by a bipartisan commission that reported to the Legislature last year - and the rising Big Dig debt.

"If people were held accountable, I might not be driving over a temporary bridge every night," said Hedlund, a Republican from Weymouth.

Like many of his constituents, Hedlund is uneasy about the bridge's rumbling, which he said he felt while riding his bike over the bridge last week. "It doesn't give me a good feeling."

A spokesman for the state Executive Office of Transportation said the bridge is safe.

"Rattling or shaking is not a sign of any problem," Adam Hurtubise said in an e-mail Friday.

Hedlund represents the Weymouth side of the bridge, but residents and business owners at both ends complain about traffic tie-ups that occur 10 times a week when the bridge is raised, a process often lasting 15 minutes or more. They also complain about the appearance of the temporary bridge, with its Erector Set-style towers, chain-link fencing, and Jersey barriers.

"It's terrible," said Steve MacDonald of Hull, a marine engineer and tugboat operator who drives over and crosses under the bridge frequently. "You hear those plates jiggling when you go over it. Really scary."

Like many in the area, MacDonald said he misses the speed of the old drawbridge compared to the temporary bridge's vertical lift, which he and others in the area said takes several minutes longer than its predecessor.

"It was up, it was down," he said. Now "everyone takes alternate routes, because they don't want to sit here."

MacDonald said he doesn't care much for the Big Dig, either. "It was a waste of this," he said, rubbing two fingers and a thumb together to simulate money.

Not everyone thinks having a temporary bridge locally is such a bad tradeoff for the Big Dig. Peter Forman, president and chief executive of the Quincy-based South Shore Chamber of Commerce, said the Big Dig was good for the area. He also doubts the state would have proceeded faster with the Fore River Bridge or other capital projects if it had not been working on the Big Dig.

And while the temporary structure may not be beautiful or quiet, it beats a crumbling or closed bridge, he said.

"The fact is, for Eastern Mass., the tunnels and the Big Dig going through Boston really is a hub of travel and economic activity," Forman said. "Had you accelerated construction on secondary roads or other projects and still had horrendous bottlenecks in Boston, I'm not sure what would have been gained."

The state regularly maintains the temporary bridge, designed to last 15 years, and has paid particular attention since early reports emerged about missing or loose bolts on the bridge's pedestrian walkway. On Friday, workers closed one of the two Weymouth-bound lanes for repairs to the road plates, where the textured surface had worn away to the metal.

On a morning walk in the park under the bridge's Weymouth side, Gary Peters pocketed a rusty bolt and brought it back to his Bluff Road home, where he dropped it in a bucket filled with dozens like it, each thicker than a finger. Although workers on the bridge said the bolts were discarded or dropped during plate replacement, Peters is doubtful.

"You can hear it at night, buh-boink, buh-boink, buh-boink," Peters, an optician and community activist, said Friday. "What are we hearing? Those plates are loose. Something bad is going to happen."

The state is negotiating a design contract for a new bridge with STV, a national company based in Douglassville, Pa., and New York City, with an office in Boston, according to Hurtubise. Design, review, permitting, and other preparation work are projected to take seven years, with construction to follow, he said.

That timetable stretches to 2020, but it might be accelerated. Governor Deval Patrick identified Fore River in May as a priority when he submitted a $3 billion bond proposal to the Legislature for bridge work. Hedlund said he has mixed feelings about the bond, eager to see the project push forward but unsure whether the state can afford that much more transportation debt.

Either way, locals can expect years of continued traffic backups when the bridge is up. "I've gotten stuck in it many times coming to work," said Joe Caparrotta, store manager at Allied Auto Parts, on the Weymouth side. He said he has seen northbound traffic stopped on Route 3A all the way into Hingham.

Caparrotta, who commutes from Hull, was surprised to hear the new bridge might not be up until 2020.

"Sheesh," the 55-year-old said, contemplating his eventual retirement. "I'll be gone."

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