Perspective: the Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge

From an engineering perspective, the Longfellow Bridge was structurally deficient the day it opened. That’s what usually happens with public works designed by architects rather than engineers. To make matters worse, state agencies routinely underestimate the cost and time to renovate urban bridges, as they recently did with the BU Bridge and the Alford Street Bridge. As of mid-2013, they estimated about $250 million and 3-1/2 years to renovate the Longfellow, but their track record suggests at least $400 million and 5 years.

The Longfellow’s pretentious ten granite piers and eleven steel-arch spans, extending for 1,800 feet, were designed around 1897 to carry trains as well as horse-drawn vehicles and the emerging motor vehicles. The four cigar-stub towers were never anything but decorations. At the time, the lower Charles River was tidal mudflats. Shortly after the bridge opened in 1907, what is now known as the Science Park dam turned this part of the river into a catch basin for raw municipal sewage and industrial waste.

The former Union Railway had begun operating horse-drawn streetcars across the previous West Boston Bridge in 1856. Its successor, the West End Street Railway, began operating electrically powered streetcars across the previous bridge in 1889. The name Longfellow was merely a sentimental afterthought, attached about 30 years after the current bridge opened. By that time, the Charles River basin had already accumulated a bed of sewage and toxins up to a foot thick. They are now up to five feet thick.

From the beginning, the Longfellow and the Charles River basin were engineering disasters that never needed to happen. Just upriver, for example, is the Harvard Bridge–a longer bridge, about 15 years older. Unlike the Longfellow, it was built on-time and on-budget, even though originally it too had streetcar tracks and had a swing-section to accommodate barges traveling the Charles River. In the 1980s, major renovation cost about $16 million, again on-time and on-budget. The difference, well over tenfold, was sound engineering and reliable construction of the Harvard Bridge, both when built and when renovated.

The greatest misfortune of the Longfellow Bridge was that the complex, badly engineered structure came under custody of the former Metropolitan District Commission, an even worse steward than the Port Authority became of the Tobin Bridge. Unlike the Harvard Bridge, the Longfellow had not been designed to withstand careless management. In 1959, the Longfellow got a first overhaul under the MDC, by then a rotten, patronage-ridden agency in decline. The job was botched, failing to address complex features of the bridge, and after several years the Longfellow again fell into severe disrepair.

The Longfellow went to an unprepared Department of Conservation and Recreation in 2003. The state highway department planned an immediate overhaul, at an estimated cost of $125 million. Haggling over design with DCR added ten years of delay to a project only starting in 2013. Through 2013, the highway department had contracted for over $20 million in emergency repairs, to shore up the bridge against the nearly disastrous lack of maintenance under a former, corrupt MDC and a current, quarrelsome DCR.

The DCR has been taken over by antiquarians, determined to preserve not only the shape of the Longfellow but also its structurally deficient, badly corroded original materials. The Longfellow Bridge was an obvious candidate for demolition and replacement. By trying to overhaul rather than replace it, the cost of its bridge service, per lane-mile per year, could rise much higher than even the prodigal spending on a new Fore River Bridge between Quincy and Weymouth, and the bridge’s probable lifetime before another round of major maintenance is needed will not likely prove longer than 30 to 40 years.

(previously published in another venue)

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 4, 2015

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