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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.

End nears for elevated Artery

Engineers plan delicate deconstruction of much-reviled roadway

By Raphael Lewis, Globe Staff, 4/14/2002

Nearly half a century after the elevated Central Artery was erected, crawling through downtown Boston like an alien centipede, the Big Dig project is finally preparing to exterminate the battle-scarred hulk.

The demolition, which begins slowly this spring and which will last until 2005, is perhaps the most anticipated phase of the $14.6-billion Big Dig. This involves the erasure of a structure reviled by those who get trapped on it, who work near it, and who dwell in its shadows.

So it's fitting that the elevated highway's destruction will be a painful ordeal, lasting years and requiring some of the Big Dig's most complicated, intrusive work. The demolition will present a formidable test to the long-frayed patience of neighborhoods and businesses along the corridor.

Workers will spend 28 months smashing, sawing, ripping, and tugging down the 38,349 tons of lead-painted steel and 20,000 tons of concrete and asphalt that, in one businessman's words, constitutes the city's other "Green Monster." And they must do this carefully, so as not to jeopardize the new multibillion-dollar tunnels that course beneath the 1.8-mile work zone.

The contractors, Modern Continental Construction Co., also must contend with a structure slathered in 480,000 square feet of toxic lead paint, lined with 15,200 linear feet of carcinogenic asbestos concrete boards, and coated with eight tons and five decades of soot.

The work must also be done without violating stringent noise limits brokered by environmental and community groups, who vow to try to halt the demolition if the limits are routinely broken.

Project officials insist that they are up to the task. Of almost $40 million being spent to demolish the elevated Artery, more than $16 million is earmarked to ensure that the asbestos, lead, dust, and noise created by the razing do not excessively affect the city.

On the noise front, project officials have spent four years mapping out a plan to quiet the roar. They now say they have created the most comprehensive, aggressive "noise abatement" plan for any construction project, ever, in the United States.

"We are really writing the book here," said Erich Thalheimer, the Big Dig's noise control manager. "This project is fully committed to dealing with noise."

More than $4 million will be spent to treat 100 to 200 windows along the corridor, to hang "noise curtains," to erect barriers, and to staff the work zones with noise patrol officers. (The officers, armed with decibel detectors, are theoretically empowered to shut down work if things get too loud.)

Much of the demolition in the North End has been shifted to weekends, to appease the beleaguered neighborhood, which has suffered more than any other over the past decade of Big Dig construction. The cost: $3 million.

Also, Thalheimer says, the loudest work, when jackhammers and the like pound through the elevated road surface, will take place only in the daytime. And much of the night work has been shifted to commercial zones, where few residents would lose sleep. And those annoying beeping alarms from construction vehicles backing up will be disabled for night work.

Anne Fanton, executive director of the Artery Oversight Committee, said that the Big Dig's plan to reduce noise is admirable, but she added that she remains unconvinced that the plan will be adhered to properly, or that it will help reduce the roar of work.

"I'm worried about noise, the residents are worried about noise," Fanton said. "It's significant night work, it all takes place above ground, so it's very difficult to mask. It's really the primary challenge."

Concerning the lead paint, asbestos, and soot, workers have been instructed to erect "negative-pressure" tents, in which they chip off the paint and pull out the potential pollutants. Vacuum tubes then suck the contaminated air out of the tent and into high-efficiency filters. All steel girders to be sheared by contractors, who are to yank down pieces as much as 80 feet in length, must be marked and cleaned first, officials said.

Containing the lead contaminants, and disposing of them, will cost about $10 million. The asbestos cleanup will cost another $2.3 million, officials said. Soot cleansing will amount to $51,000.

"It's very labor-intensive," Larry O'Brien, the resident engineer for the demolition contract, said of the process. "It's incredibly unproductive when you think about it, but you have to do it this way. If it were up to most contractors, they'd rip down the Artery in a couple of days."

The careful approach of the Big Dig, and the attempt to gain the community's good graces, stands in stark contrast to methods employed when the Artery first rose, casting its shadows along the way.

Yanni Tsipis, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology transportation engineer who authored "Boston's Central Artery," a photographic history of the highway's construction, says neighbors were barely a concern when the structure rose in 1954 and 1955.

"They had some water trucks to spray down the demolition sites, but that was it," Tsipis said. "The pile drivers went all day and into the evening, and the people who lived in the homes they didn't demolish first just had to grin and bear it."

With such a history, it's hardly surprising that few have uttered a nostalgic word about the passing of the elevated Artery. A thought was offered about rivets becoming keepsakes, said the Big Dig's manager of disposal, Chris Barnett. But because of the lead paint, preserving such relics would cost too much.

Rick Dimino, president of the Artery Business Committee, a coalition of Boston businesses affected by the project, says any nostalgia for the old roadway, and for the scenic downtown ride it provides, will surely be replaced by admiration for the open space created by its departure.

"Some people say there are two Green Monsters in Boston, but I think the nostalgia is really reserved for the one at Fenway Park," Dimino said.

"For most of us, it will be hard to find the same kind of emotional connection to the elevated structure. The opportunity of having it taken down is just so wonderful for the city and its waterfront."

He said the Artery left an unloved scar.

As for the steel structure, Barnett said, historians should not expect to see any of it remaining on on the restored Surface Artery, like a sort of anti-triumphal arch. Most of the metal will go to an Everett scrap steel concern, where the hunks will be cut and shipped around the world as scrap.

Barnett said: "It could come back as a Hyundai."

Raphael Lewis, who covers the Big Dig, can be reached by e-mail at RLewis@globe.com.

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