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Heavy toll for East Boston

Proposed higher tunnel levies threaten commerce, link to rest of city

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / November 19, 2008
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For three years, Jayro Godoy has driven to Happy Barbershop in East Boston for a weekly ritual. The 23-year-old painter gets a tight shave on the sides, pays his $12 to Rafael the barber, then heads home to Waltham. If tunnel tolls double to $7, as state officials have planned, Godoy says he will find somewhere else to get his fade.

"No one will come to East Boston," he said from a swiveling barber chair as clippers buzzed next to his ear.

Residents and business owners in this multiethnic neighborhood may soon test the limits of friendship and customer loyalty. East Boston, connected to the rest of the city by just three narrow tunnels, may grow even more distant, with substantial financial barriers separating families and threatening businesses that depend on customers crossing the "moat" from Boston.

"We're freaking out, actually," said Laura Rollins, an artist and real estate agent from the South End who sees the neighborhood as an ideal tapestry of cultures and income levels, but has to convince first-time home buyers that their friends will pay an extra fee to visit them.

The tunnels, though not the only connection with the rest of Greater Boston, are the lifeblood and most direct route for commerce and car traffic coming from any place other than the North Shore. Perhaps no other neighborhood better illustrates the fundamental changes to daily life that the toll rates threaten to set in motion.

Last week, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board gave initial approval to toll increases that would essentially double the fare coming through the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels and increase rates for drivers in the western suburbs. Those increases would take effect early next year, depending on public hearings and a second vote.

Coming toward East Boston through the tunnels will remain free. It is on the way out that drivers have to pay what amounts to an exit tax. East Boston residents pay only 40 cents because of a discount that is part of state law. But visitors will have to pay $7, or $6 with a Fast Lane transponder, under the toll plan given preliminary approval last week.

The main alternative route from Eastie to the rest of Boston, a two-lane bumpy road that weaves through Chelsea's produce warehouses, takes about 10 minutes longer when not congested.

The MBTA's Blue Line, which goes through East Boston, is probably the easiest and cheapest way to get into Boston proper, but it has fewer stops and carries fewer passengers than the other three subway lines in the system. All of which adds up to widespread angst on the part of East Boston residents and businesses.

"It ghettoizes us, and East Boston is already ghettoized," said Anna Salmeron, a nurse from South Revere who is part of an East Boston artist cooperative with Rollins.

Even with tolls at their current $3.50, David Fitzgerald, executive chef of a new restaurant called Ecco, said he cannot get Chinatown wholesalers to deliver him sauces, spices, and rice.

"They're not wanting to deal with the tunnels and pay for the fees," he said. "Even though I tell them 'tack it on' " to the bill.

Fitzgerald now has larger worries, the survival of his restaurant. He is serving high-end food at prices intended to lure customers from more established dining neighborhoods like the North End, the South End, or Back Bay. No entree costs more than $20.

Business has been good in the first six weeks, but the end of the "new restaurant buzz" and a soft economy have fueled a 10 percent weekly decline since the initial spike. The weekend was spent worrying about the toll hike, which would cost customers about as much as an appetizer. Fitzgerald is choosing to look on the bright side of the isolation: Maybe North Shore residents will avoid the tolls to downtown Boston and give his restaurant a try. "It's all kind of a Rubik's Cube," he said. "You never know till the blocks keep turning."

Is the Turnpike Authority board sympathetic to their anticipated plight? Hardly. Leading up to last week's vote, board members have publicly lamented the money the authority loses from the steep discount given to residents.

East Boston has a history of evolving as new immigrant communities re-create the three-deckers and brick apartment buildings in their own cultural image. Irish, Italians, Jews, and then Southeast Asians, Central Americans, and Brazilians have come through here. They put up with noise from neighboring Logan International Airport, unkempt roads, and oddly designed traffic patterns, yet carve out a sense of place in the parks and squares.

Many of the corner stores sell food, phone cards, and travel packages tailored to the transplanted populations, and these would probably not be threatened by the loss of outsiders.

Santarpio's Pizza, the neighborhood institution, draws heavily from loyal North Shore commuters who can drive in and out through Chelsea without paying a toll. Even there, however, business may drop. But manager Lenny Timpone, whose family opened the pizza and barbecue restaurant a century ago, believes that the loyal customers, many of whom grew up in Eastie and left, will keep lining up around the block on weekend nights because there is no place else that has the same wooden bar stools, the same conversations, the same guy carving lamb in the kitchen, and the same pizza.

Maria Salgado, owner of Taqueria Cancun, is more concerned. The television, the music, the menu, and the conversation in her restaurant are in Spanish, with a large contingent of local residents in the booths. Despite the neighborhood intimacy, she does not see her restaurant as a purely local hang-out.

She attracts about 50 percent of her customers from other neighborhoods, she estimates. Salgado has spent 18 years building the business, to the point where former Bostonians come to buy a taco or a Salvadorian pupusa on return trips to the region. The last few years, she has withstood lingering construction at the nearby Maverick T station, where a crane and concrete barriers serve as bothersome landmarks in the center of town.

"All around is construction," she said. "We don't have parking for customers."

She gasped when she heard last week that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board had tentatively approved new toll hikes, just as construction in Maverick Square may finally be winding down.

Salgado is proud of East Boston's immigrant mix, the fact that many residents work two and three jobs looking for economic security. Yet she does not believe it will be a healthy community if it turns only inward.

"We need to grow up together," she said. "We are part of the whole city."

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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