Tuesday, October 02, 2012

North Bank Bridge: As Costly and Semi-Useless as the Rest of the Big Dig

[This rant, originally published on 2012/10/02 was finally edited on 2014/06/01 to reflect my latest feelings about the bridge. I fully acknowledge both my original ranting and raving as well as my latest feelings. -TM]

Welcome back!

Long-story-short, I crossed the North Point Bridge for the first time yesterday. For those of you who haven't much time to spare, my short review is:

The Negative:

  • Hard Not the easiest to get to on either side (Boston or Cambridge)
  • Hard Not the easiest to orient oneself once on the opposite side
  • Not very overly popular because of both of the above
  • Benefits Cambridge (North Point) much more than it does Boston (Charlestown)
The Positive:
  • Simple and effective engineering and architecture for $8 million pricetag
  • Great train views
  • Great panoramic view (clockwise) of Somerville, Charlestown, the North End, the West End and Cambridge

If that's all the time you have, that about sums it up. The rest of this rant will, as usual focus on the negative with a sprinkling of the positive since, just like public transit in this State, any pro-walking/pro-cycling progress is better than none even if it costs way more than it should've and benefits far fewer than other projects coul've.

It's definitely not a secret that I have nothing but absolute disdain for everything that was, is and will be the Big Dig. And it wasn't like I didn't have enough material before crossing the North Bank Bridge to go on--heck, I could write for days about the Silver Line alone. So when I did finally cross the Bridge, the latest piece of the Big Dig for me to bare witness, I (unfortunately, I guess) came to the same conclusion as I've done with experiencing the Zakim Bridge, Tip O' Neill Tunnel, Ted Williams Tunnel, Silver Line and Rose Kennedy Greenway: as costly and semi-useless as everything else!

Before I begin the true rant on the North Bank Bridge, let me first provide the semi-interesting back-story of how I came to even find out about this nearly-invisible bridge:

On a hot but not-too-humid Sunday afternoon I was sitting in central air conditioning at the dining table in my soon-to-be-90 Grandmother's house in South Carolina. I had picked up a copy of the Boston Metro much earlier that day from a box, but somehow managed to not read it on the Orange Line, Blue Line, Airport Shuttle or connecting flights to South Carolina--not to mention the hour-long ride from the airport "down there" to her house. But now, relaxing from all that traveling and soaking up the legendary Southern Hospitality, I had the time and so I did.

Therein lied, in typical quick-and-to-the-point Metro fashion a short article on this so-called North Bank Bridge. Ever one to stay on top of major urban transportation development around Greater Boston, this one caught me completely off guard. I asked my mother, who also stays on top of current events, if she had heard of it; she hadn't. So naturally, in this day and age, I then sought out further research from my recently purchased "smart" phone, the Samsung Galaxy S3. I found a few articles touting the building and opening of the Bridge sometime in mid-July.

Mid-July?! But . . . hadn't seen . . . heard anything . . . didn't even know exactly where it was! And as I crossed it yesterday I soon came to understand, at least partially, why.

Hard to Get To:
The Bridge is described in basic terms as providing a "vital link," or some euphemism thereof depending on the article writer, "between Charlestown and Cambridge." Well, that's true, but when I think "vital link" I think of say, the Prison Point/Gilmore Bridge--something easily accessible from major thoroughfares, in the case of that bridge, Rutherford Avenue and McGrath/O'Brien Highway, prospectively. The North Bank Bridge actually connects Paul Revere Park--which I'm sure even many some Charlestown residents have to look up--with North Point, a-k-a that tony condo-y section of Lechmere Square that sought to separate itself in the same way that the Seaport District was separated from South Boston.

Paul Revere Park is no picnic to get to--if on foot  you have to walk down stairs from the Charlestown Bridge; if on any set of wheels--bicycle, roller skates/slates, wheelchair/scooter, etc., you have to go all the way around to Warren Street and under the Charlestown Bridge (Constitution Road/Water Street) just to get there as there is no ramp access off of Rutherford Avenue/North Washington Street. There are three main access points:
*Access 1: Off of New Rutherford Ave just before the Tobin Bridge Onramp (foot, any wheeled vehicle)
*Access 2: Off of North Washington Street, just after the I-93S/"Loop Ramp" Onramp (foot, any wheeled vehicle)
*Access 2.5: Stairs off of North Washington Street, just after the I-93S/"Loop Ramp" Onramp (foot only)
*Access 3: Underneath North Washington Street/Charlestown Bridge from Constituation Road/Water Street (foot, any wheeled vehicle)

Even though, as you can see, I redacted much of the original comments about accessing the Bridge having, in the last two years, found the other "secret" access points, I still stand by my original "no picnic" comment, looking at it mainly from a cyclist's perspective:
*Access 1 requires you to either cut through the Bunker Hill Community College Campus or mix it up first with traffic turning onto the Prison Point/Gilmore Bridge, then cross that entire Bridge then mix it up with traffic turning toward the Tobin Bridge--on a safety scale of 10 (safest) to 0 (taking your life in your hands), I'd give it a -1; but, conversely it is the most efficient way to go.
*Accesses 2 and 2.5 require you to either continue further down on  New Rutherford Ave, past Access 1, also mixing it up with traffic turning onto I-93/"Loop Ramp" or taking a detour through Main Street Charlestown and City Square only to have to eventually cross the wide intersection of Chelsea Street and North Washington Street. On the same safety scale, I'd put it at about a 7, but what you gain in safety you lose in the time factor.
*Access 3, the way I used to go and, at the point of the original rant, the only way I thought you could go if not on foot, requires an even more convoluted detour through Charlestown. Safety factor 11, but again, you lose much in the time factor.

Similarly, on the Cambridge side, North Point Park is set back off of McGrath/O'Brien Highway by connecting road Museum Way.

Long-story-short, if you want to take this Bridge you have to really want to take it--so much for it being a "vital link." live in Charlestown already you probably find it convenient, but, for me, coming from the Sullivan Square Area, it's either dicey roads or convoluted roads.

Hard to Orient Oneself Once on the Opposite Side:
There is really nothing much more to say that wasn't said in the previous section except that if you really don't know the area, you'll really be lost once you cross the North Bank Bridge since, again, you're kinda sorta winding up in Lechmere Square or kinda sorta winding in Charlestown--but not really. Such was my thought yesterday as I crossed the Bridge from Charlestown to North Point and realized that I was at least a half a mile off from the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path near Storrow Drive--where I wanted to be. A distant dream  includes a secondary bridge connection linking North Point Park area to the park area along Nashua Street such that you don't have to do a funky "U" through North Point Park to reach civilization.

Not an Very Overly Popular Bridge:
As a cyclist you get used to going in directions not frequented by pedestrians since, well, bicycles are far more versatile, not the least of advantages being the ability, at will, to switch from path riding to street riding to sidewalks (for infrequent safety reasons). But sometimes you just get the sense that going a certain way just really doesn't seem great and thus a red flag was raised in my head as I crossed through Paul Revere Park and noticed that not some, but all of the pedestrians walking through were continuing to the left to the Gridley Locks while nobody was heading right towards the North Bank Bridge.

Now, mind  you, I was still under the false pretenses that the Bridge was a "vital link" and thus couldn't yet fathom why people were continuing to squeeze their way through the Locks while this fancy, expensive new bridge was available. But then, as I mentioned in the previous section, it hit me when I got to the Cambridge side--I wasn't in the West End or Science Park area--I was in the no-man's (person's) land of North Point! Expecting throngs of people while crossing the Bridge, my total human contact consisted of eight persons--a father biking in the opposite direction with his daughter in a front basket of some sort and another man biking up the bridge in the opposite direction who I had to wait to pass by the huge planter on the Cambridge side (decorative and to prohibit motor vehicle traffic) because two mothers with children in strollers, and one holding another baby managed to situate themselves right in the space between the planter and the railing on the other side. Mind you they could have parked themselves anywhere along the Bridge except where people needed to squeeze by said planter. Yes, even on a sparsely-used pedestrian/cycling bridge, leave it to Massholes to create unnecessary congestion!

Benefits North Point more than Charlestown:
Taking everything I've said already into consideration, the only real use I can see for the Bridge if you live on the Charlestown side is if you want to go to the Museum of Science or Cambrideside Galleria--even the Green Line Science Park station would still be quicker by cutting through the Gridley Locks. From the North Point side, it's easy access to the much more bustling Charlestown and North End--especially if you're able-bodied and can do stairs. Plus, it's a bonus for North Point residents since it connects their blasé park with the expansive Paul Revere Park.

Simple and Effective Engineering and Architecture:
Finally, on to some positives! Okay, so the thing appears structurally sound from my learned engineering standpoint, or at least more structurally sound than other portions of the Big Dig. From an architectural standpoint, the $8 million price tag, while steep, at least seems to be money-well-spent as the Bridge is a healthy mix of modern-cool while at the same time almost no-frills. Also, of note is that you really, really have to cross this Bridge at night sometime--not past your bedtime of course: the lighting is very awesome, much like the behemoth Zakim Bridge above it.

Great Views:
The panoramic view, as I mentioned earlier, would really benefit tourists who happen to find this thing--I personally am more concerned with the Bridge's great unobstructed overhead view of trains entering and leaving North Station over the drawbridge, as well as views to the North of the Commuter Rail tracks and nearby Somerville Shops and the Orange Line. The biggest reason I'll take the Bridge when I have time will be the train views; the second reason being my love for off-the-beaten path rides. I'm guessing neither of those reasons factored into describing the Bridge as a "vital link" however.

-TM

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