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State ready to fill in Big Dig’s missing links

Bridges to connect city’s green spaces

By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2009

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It was touted as the Big Dig’s greatest open-space gift to Boston: a spectacular ribbon of parks, paths, and pedestrian footbridges linking the Esplanade to both the Rose Kennedy Greenway and Boston Harbor. But when the Central Artery/Tunnel Project officially wrapped up two years ago, only half of what was promised had been built.

This week, state environmental officials, flush with $30 million from the federal stimulus package and a renewed political will, took a huge step toward addressing that failure.

Construction bids were opened Tuesday for the first of three promised footbridges, a 700-foot expanse that will rise over railroad tracks on the Cambridge-Charlestown line to link parklands on opposite sides of the Leonard P. Zakim Bridge. The federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will pay for the entire bridge, called the North Bank Bridge, and other riverfront paths.

More important, the infusion of federal dollars will be combined with another $30.5 million left over in the Central Artery’s coffers to build the other footbridges and paths promised to Bostonians nearly two decades ago, state officials said.

Once that happens - the new goal is about four years - Bostonians will be able to walk, jog, and bike from Watertown to Charlestown to South Boston without leaving the water’s edge. The city will be opened to recreational users like never before, with multiuse trails under both sides of the Zakim Bridge to explore on any journey.

“The idea that you can walk all the way down the Charles, but not to the harbor, is frustrating for people who care about the history and recreational use of the river,’’ said Ian Bowles, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “You’re going to finally see the Commonwealth moving forward to reclaim this last half-mile. Being able to do the North Bank Footbridge with the recovery funds has unlocked the whole rest of the deal.’’

While the Big Dig spent $100 million on parks - including North Point Park in Cambridge, Paul Revere Park in Charlestown, and Nashua Street Park in Boston - it failed to build the all-important links between the parks, the Esplanade, the Greenway, and the Harbor. As a result, the parks have seen little use.

Those missing links all lie in the so-called lost half-mile of the Charles River, officially known as the New Charles River Basin. The area extends from Monsignor O’Brien Highway between the Museum of Science and Leverett Circle to the Charlestown Bridge, where the dam sits.

When the Central Artery/Tunnel Project officially closed on Dec. 31, 2007, most parks and recreation advocates figured the missing links would remain missing for a long time. The recession further sapped any hope of the state’s covering the full $60 million in remaining construction costs. And there was no guarantee that $30.5 million left over from the Central Artery, even though it was earmarked for parks, would not be siphoned off to pay other state debts.

Now, those advocates say they are both shocked and full of joy.

“These are really difficult economic times, and things are dropping right and left, so people have been disappointed about many things,’’ said Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association since 1991. “But this is really good news. I’ve got a big smile on my face.’’

Dan Wilson, a longtime volunteer member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the New Charles River Basin, praised Bowles and the governor for their renewed commitment to finishing the work. But Wilson cautioned that promises to complete the missing links have amounted to little in the past, and budgets that were thought to be more than enough have fallen far short.

“My concern is that we may repeat the same mistake,’’ Wilson said.

Bowles and Rick Sullivan, commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said that this time the work will be done. State Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan is also supporting the effort.

“We intend to keep every commitment we’ve made,’’ Mullan said.

The North Bank Footbridge, which will link North Point Park in Cambridge to Paul Revere Park in Charlestown, should be built within two years, Sullivan said, as will a multiuse path on Beverly Street Extension connecting the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the Charles River.

Bowles and Sullivan said they intend to revive plans to attach a second footbridge to an existing railroad bridge across the Charles. That footbridge, which Sullivan estimated would cost $5 million, would link North Point Park in Cambridge to Nashua Street Park in Boston.

A third missing bridge, estimated at $12 million, is expected to rise over railroad tracks on the southern side of the Charles near the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.