WOBURN - After a decade of serious effort by the Woburn political leadership and interest by the state, the New Boston Street Bridge connecting North Woburn to Wilmington has still not been replaced.
The latest chapter in the saga yesterday involved the Mass. Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey, who met with Mayor Scott Galvin, State Representative James Dwyer, Senator Kenneth Donnelley, City Planner Edmund Tarallo and Woburn highway officials in the Engineer’s Conference Room in City Hall.
In turn, they all ventured to the south side of the New Boston Street Bridge up New Boston Street in Woburn. One can easily walk across the MBTA tracks...but driving can be a circuitous ordeal.
The project, however, is not on a front burner. The earliest dates in the Long Range Plans of the Massachusetts Dept. of Transportation is 2016-2020. And, the 25% public hearing date is also a way off.
“The state is concerned,” cautioned Rep. Dwyer before the high-echelon level, “but be aware, any funding is not part of the much-publicized Governor Deval Patrick’s transportation improvement plans.” “I say again: not part of the funding.”
The bridge, abandoned in 1977, allows cars and trucks to avoid Main Street in North Woburn and takes traffic away from the heavily-used street. The bridge itself is totally in Woburn and goes over the Boston to Lowell railroad tracks.
In June, 2009, the area has seen high-profile politicians like Lt. Governor Timothy Murray and others posing at an off-the-road site at the bridge on the Woburn side but nothing has been done. The same protocol of a survey of the area came along with the City Hall meeting on a cold, rainy afternoon for about 10 minutes.
The current cost now is $7.9 million, according to official estimates.
The next steps are to receive final highway comment responses, resubmit Bridge Plans and a Geotech Report and to schedule a public hearing.
The city of Woburn had its own set of plans that were shown to Sec’y. Davey. The city has retained the firm of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. of Watertown to develop the plans. In turn, their Managing Director of Transportation Engineering Thomas W. Jackmin, P.E. represented and spoke for the city on the engineering side.
“It’s all about economic development,” said Mayor Galvin in his greetings. “There is a lot of room for housing, retail, mixed use and other uses,” he said, citing the recently approved Commerce Way Overlay District that was approved by the city fathers recently.
The area, it was pointed out by several city officials, was not just the easy one (easy access into Wilmington) but one of a broader scale, including the bustling Commerce Way area and traffic relief for homeowners and small businesses.
Sec’y. Davey viewed it as “an opportunity.” “It’s one of the things we’ve talked about many times. We know the developers.” He said he has viewed other such projects in Mass. and around the country.
City Engineer Jay Corey also attended the session and noted the proposed improvements in traffic for the I-95 (Rte. 128) and I-93 that is on a capital improvement list in several years time. “At some point, what we do there is important and a key component to what we do in the New Boston Street area,” he said. All the parts, he pointed out, are connected in some way to each other.
Mayor Galvin pointed out the bigger, strategic picture of the whole area. “We are here to try to help out the governor,” Galvin said at another juncture.
North Woburn alderman Michael Raymond also sat on the session.
Sec’y. Davey, who was flanked by DoT and MBTA railroad people, said the entire effort “is one of our highway team in conjunction with the MBTA (rail) people.”
The city also sees it as a “critical transportation link” for both regional and local traffic. The bridge, the city feels, is “the missing link to the city and region’s transportation system resulting today in diverted, inconvenient and longer vehicle trips but when built will provide a more direct route that will result in a reduction in vehicle miles traveled and emissions.”
The Anderson Regional Transportation Center, it is pointed out, is dead center in the middle of it all! And, pedestrians and bikes are also a consideration.
The project is supported by the North Suburban Planning Council (MAPC) subregion and the town of Wilmington.
Many technical things have already been done, like the Bridge Type Study was approved in May, 2010, and an MBTA Access Permit was granted in April 2011. Plans got submitted by the city in July 2011 and a Geotech Report and Bridge Sketch Plan was submitted to DoT in June 2012. Still, a step by step process must be taken with state agencies and others to get approvals.
Bridge to nowhere....
Back in 2006, the city got all excited about the prospects for re-construction when Sen. Robert Havern D. Arlington informed Mayor Thomas McLaughlin and city officials the Mass. Senate had overridden a veto of then Governor Mitt Romney on funds for the bridge. Rep. Jay R. Kaufman, D. Lexington and Rep. Patrick M. Natale concurred the move was a good one. However, nothing ever came of it.
The funds were supposed to be in the FY2007 budget but never made it despite approval by the Senate and House.
By the spring of 2007, Mayor McLaughlin also said publicly the process was underway.
Actually, the bridge was part of a bond issue as far back as 2004 when Rep. Carol Donovan, D., Woburn announced it as part of a $3.6 million bond issue.
There had always been a bridge there, ever since the Boston and Lowell Railroad was built 175 years ago.
The bridge was a secondary link between Wilmington and Woburn, linking two industrial areas. Subsequent development has changed the patterns of travel in the area.
The B&L was one of the earliest railroads in the United States. That railroad line became part of the Boston & Maine, and is now part of the MBTA system. It is believed to be the oldest rail line still in operation in the U.S.
At the time the railroad was built in the early 1830s, the trustees opted to have bridges built to avoid grade-crossing accidents. And for more than a century, the bridges held up, carrying horses and wagons safely over the tracks. Then as auto traffic increased both in speed and volume, the old bridges became hazardous. They simply were not designed to carry 20th Century traffic and could not carry the weight of large trucks.
Many of the bridges along the line were built by Asa Sheldon, a farmer, contractor and state representative who lived in Wilmington. In his autobiography, he listed 14 bridges on that railroad which he had rebuilt. The names he used are old. He listed one as the Saw-pit Woods bridge, which was the Eames Street bridge. And there was the Boutelle bridge, so called, which would have been in Woburn, and possibly was the New Boston Street bridge.
Sheldon also built many miles of rail line. In his book, he specifically mentions the section that ran through the Eldad Carter farm in Wilmington. That farm was on Shawsheen Avenue, at Bridge Lane.
The ownership of the bridges was long a point of contention. The town roads ran up to each side of the railroad right-of-way, but the railroad owned the bridges. Then in the 1950s, the railroad fell into financial distress. The Boston & Maine Railroad approached the towns, seeking to have them take over the bridges. Eventually, the responsibility was taken over by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
All the old railroad bridges in Wilmington have been replaced, although one, the Butters Row bridge, remains a one-lane bridge with a wooden deck. Another, the Shawsheen Avenue bridge, is open only to foot traffic. New bridges are in place at Eames Street, Burlington Avenue, Route 129, Lake Street and Nichols Street.
On occasion, the New Boston Street bridge would be closed for replacement of the wooden deck. For years, the state studied it. State Rep. Fred Cain was working on a proposal to replace it in the early 1970s. Then in 1977, it was closed for good. Fred Cain died in May 1977.
After the bridge closed, it became a political football. Residents of the Woburn Street area in south or east Wilmington did not want the bridge reopened. They felt that it would allow people working in North Woburn a short-cut to Route 93 via Route 129. Of course, other people wanted it opened, so they could use it as a quicker way to access Route 128.
Rep. Jim Miceli promised his constituents that it would not reopen until there were alternative routes.
Well, that has happened. There is a link to North Woburn via Commerce Way, and an exit from Route I-93. So now there are plans in the works to rebuild the New Boston Street bridge.
Although the bridge is located entirely in Woburn, crossing over the Boston-Lowell railroad tracks, it connects the two municipalities and therefore the project required Wilmington's blessing in order to be eligible for state funding.
Wilmington Selectmen voted 4 to 1 in June of 2004 to support the re-opening of the bridge.
State funds have been appropriated for the project, Woburn officials learned in 2006. The study/design of the reconstruction project is estimated to cost approximately $400,000. The construction was expected to cost in excess of $5 million at that time....but nothing moved forward.
(Wilmington’s Larz F. Neilson contributed to this report.)