Infrastructure Inequality: The Battle to Fix the Long Island Bridge

Outside of Woods-Mullen Shelter, just down the street from Boston Medical Center, sits a large, cage-like structure. A fence runs down the middle, creating two chain-link hallways. On a windy Boston afternoon, people in hoodies, sweatpants, ball caps and shades gather there, some huddled together, others standing and talking or smoking, many clinging to the only bag they own.

The right hallway is for people waiting to get into Woods-Mullen; the left is for those going to the Long Island Shelter. There, they wait for the 275 and 276 buses—the only bus routes that go to Long Island, which is home not just to the homeless shelter but over a dozen other human-services programs. Some of the programs on the Island send out vans to pickup points, but the only way to get to the shelter is by waiting in the chain-link hallway.

From Woods-Mullen, the bus takes about 20 men and 20 women through Quincy, through the neighborhood of Squantum, past a guard post and onto a causeway to Moon Island. Between Moon Island and Long Island is a 3,500-foot, 63-year-old bridge that many people claim is falling apart. Salty air and water have damaged the bridge’s structure. Fishermen have reported falling debris, and one state representative even claimed that the bridge contained foot-wide potholes.

A group of four people stands around chatting near the entrance to the Long Island hallway: Elvis Perez, a tall man in a blue Boston Strong hoodie; Holly V., in a pink sweater; Emmanuel Fernandez, in a black hoodie and a red Nike hat, cane in one hand; and Joanna Fernandez, in a black sweater with a bag on her back. I ask them about the Long Island bridge.

“I don’t think that bridge is ever gonna’ fall,” says Elvis. “That shit was handmade.” Joanna disagrees. “That bridge is beat the fuck up!”

Elvis says the real problem is not the bridge but the buses they travel in, and all four agree: Those buses are in awful shape.

According to Elvis, shelter clients may get picked up in newer buses, but once they reach the gatehouse at the bridge’s entrance in Quincy, they transfer to much older buses.

He is talking about RTS buses, which have a recommended lifespan of 12 years, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Boston’s RTS buses are some of the oldest in the fleet—built between 1994 and 1995, according to the Boston Transit EMuseum. When I ask Stuart Spina of the Boston T Riders’ Union about the aged yellow-and-white bus that picks Elvis, Holly, Emmanuel and Joanna up, he confirms their story—it’s an old RTS.

Beat-up buses for a beat-up bridge

The first half of the bridge, on the Moon Island side, is a dark brown, rusty mess. The bridge is made of concrete and steel, but I definitely drove over more steel. My Jeep shook as it creeped over the metal grated surface, though delivery trucks and vans zoomed in the opposite lane. There were no foot-wide potholes; maybe they were patched up a few years ago, or maybe there was never enough concrete in the pockmarked surface to form potholes. The ride got smoother closer to Long Island, and the concrete was more flush with the bridge’s metal grid. It was not as bad as I expected, but I cannot see how Elvis thinks that the bridge will last forever.

The Long Island campus is a welcome sight after my drive. Several large, brick buildings are scattered about, and a large white water tower looms over the parking lot. The Boston skyline stands out above the bright blue bay. Liz Henderson gives me a quick tour of the Long Island shelter. There are three floors for beds. Women and young adults have dorms on the first floor, and the men-only second and third floors contain 157 and 170 beds, respectively.

“We’re actually seeing an increase in demand here,” says Henderson, going from 300 beds to 450. This includes a dramatic increase in young adult clients.

The Island is home to about 19 buildings, 15 of which are in use. There are 15 programs on the island that serve 1,000 people daily, including those of the main shelter, substance abuse treatment and women’s shelters. In the summer, inner-city kids from Boston get access to the Camp Harbor View facilities on the island’s northeastern tip. The island has long been home to human services: In 1882, the City of Boston converted the island’s largest hotel into an almshouse.

Long Island, Moon Island and the Long Island Bridge are all owned by Boston, and access to the islands is restricted. The lack of access has long frustrated Quincy residents and officials, who are prohibited from the islands even though their city provides the only land access. This means that Boston’s homeless, Boston’s addicts, Boston’s youth – even Boston’s fire and police departments, who train on Moon Island – all go through Quincy while locals are told to keep out. It has lead to some showdowns between the two cities.

In 1992, Ray Flynn, then mayor of Boston, denied Quincy residents access to the island to watch tall ships sail into Boston. Quincy residents protested by walking onto the island; the crowd was reportedly peaceful, and no one was arrested. A similar situation resolved in 2000 when Boston and Quincy worked out a deal to give Quincy residents tickets to Long Island to watch the tall ships.

Many still want access to the islands for recreational activities like fishing and hiking. The National Parks Service promised to set up some sort of park or visitors’ area on the upper part of the island, but it has yet to happen. At 1.75 miles long and with 214 acres total, Long Island is the largest of the 34 harbor islands. It is also home to historic landmarks like Fort Strong and the Long Island Head Light, its signature lighthouse.

In recent years, Quincy officials have called for the bridge to be torn down. According to Lane Lambert’s 2007 Pariot Ledger article “Road to Nowhere,” Quincy officials even supported turning the whole island into a recreational area with fishing spots, walking trails and historical stops outside of the planned federal park.

“You want to see those programs continue,” Quincy’s then-mayor, William Phelan, said. “But other uses seem more appropriate.”

State Representative Bruce Ayers, a Democrat from Squantum, has been the bridge’s most vocal critic in recent years. He consistently demands the bridge be torn down, calls it a waste of money and believes it should be replaced with a ferry system.

In 2009, Rep. Ayers told the House Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture “it may be more practical to consider simply dismantling the Long Island Bridge and investigate establishing ferry service to the island” and submitted a bill that would establish a commission to study long- and short-term maintenance and protection of the islands. In 2011, Ayers filed legislation aimed at forcing the bridge to close. The bill would have ordered the State Department of Transportation to perform a safety inspection on the bridge. If it had been found to be unsafe, Boston would have had to come up with an “economically feasible” alternative within 90 days—like the ferry system Ayers proposed.

In a 2011 op-ed for the Patriot Ledger, Ayers argued that the $3-million repairs planned by Boston were a “a misuse of taxpayers’ dollars.” He called the bridge a safety risk, pointing out the erosion caused by salt water and the bridge’s alleged foot-wide potholes. Ayers even claimed the bridge “cannot even support a full-sized school bus or fire apparatus.” He also warned that it was similar in design to the I-35W bridge in Minnesota “that tragically collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145.”

Rep. Ayers’ most recent demands to close the bridge down came when Boston proposed a $15 million repair package. Since Quincy is the only land access, it has to approve all repairs made to the bridge. Ayers claimed crumbling concrete and falling debris from under the bridge were harming shellfish and polluting Quincy’s beaches. He submitted a letter to the Quincy Conservation Commission’s November 5 meeting asking them to deny the repairs.

The commission did not deny the repairs, but it did not immediately approve them, either. Instead, it voted to delay repairs until a third-party consultant could assess the pollution risks.

Then-mayor Thomas Menino stressed the importance of fixing the bridge in a letter to Quincy mayor Thomas Koch. He pointed out that many people who use the services housed on Long Island are Quincy residents He also wrote that “[e]very dollar dedicated to the proposed maintenance project comes from the City of Boston’s Capital Budget” – in other words, that none of the money for bridge repairs comes from Commonwealth funds. The same is true of repairs made in 2008 and 2011. Despite Menino’s request, the commission did not approve the proposed repairs for months. One commission member, in particular, played a direct role in delaying them.

After the inital meeting, commission member John Brennion went out to inspect the bridge, which he says is standard practice. “When we get a list of building requests, we send someone to inspect … I went out to the bridge and I talked to one of the officers, showed them the agenda and my ID. He refused me access and cost the repairs another month.”

Brennion is not shy about his role. “They lost time because of me,” he explains. According to Brennion, the delay is standard practice. When the commission is not able to inspect a project, they delay it for a month.

Brennion does not blame the officer for denying him access. “He was just following orders,”  Brennion says. However, he thinks denying a Quincy resident and state-approved inspector access to the bridge is a sign of Boston’s “arrogance.”

“Whether you think it’s Boston property or not, it is in the jurisdiction of Quincy,” he says. “I wasn’t gonna’ give in [to Boston], and it cost them time.” Brennion adds that he is not opposed to fixing the bridge – though he does wonder if island clients could use the same ferries and ports used by the Camp Harbor View kids.

A snowstorm canceled a later meeting, and in January, Polaris Consultants sided with the conservation commission, further delaying repairs.

On March 5, the two cities reached a truce. The Conservation Committee announced that Boston’s repairs will happen but that Polaris will monitor the operation and its environmental impact. The project will start this summer and last between two and three years.

Ayers was not at the meeting, but he did submit a letter repeating his opposition to the bridge: “I … strongly believe that an alternative transportation plan to the island will be a safer, more environmentally sound and cost-effective method of transportation.”

Nick Martin, director of communications for the Boston Public Health Commission, said he was glad the commission approved the repairs and that delay did not hinder operations for the island. Martin could not comment on Ayers’ ferry proposal from an infrastructure perspective, but he did say the bridge seemed like “the most realistic option for getting that many people out to the Island.”

As of press time, Rep. Ayers had not responded to several requests for comment.

JoAnn Coull is a Quincy native, a former heroin addict who received treatment at Long Island, and currently a mentor at the island’s Safe Harbor Program. Coull says Ayers’ ferry idea is the “craziest thing I’ve ever heard” and doubts a ferry system – with the required ports and boat maintenance – would be simple or convenient.

“I don’t think people realize what happens over there. People from all walks of life recover there and become productive members of society,” Coull explained.

Coull believes that because most of the programs operate independently, they do not communicate a strong, united message. That makes the bridge and access to the island an easy problem to dismiss. “They’re not joining together to fight this battle,” she said, “since they’re too busy fighting their own battles.”

Still, Coull is not too sentimental about the bridge. She has been traveling on it for five years, and while “they’re constantly working on it,” in her opinion the repairs are just “band-aids.” She would rather see it replaced with a brand-new bridge, or at least see some serious investments towards repairs. Anything but ferries, she said.

Morrigan Phillips, a coordinator and supervisor at the Boston Living Center, believes a ferry system would only limit access to the island and its services, especially since some programs use vans of their own. “And the last thing we need is further limitation,” she says.

Calls to tear the bridge down remind Phillips of past threats to access – threats that came not from Quincy but from the City of Boston itself. In 2012, the MBTA proposed eliminating the 275 and 276 bus routes – among many others – in their original two “scenarios” for fare hikes and service cuts.

Phillips and other social service workers mobilized, and the MBTA spared the bus routes in its final scenario. Last year, however, the MBTA removed JFK/UMass Red Line Station as a stop from the routes. Phillips says it was due to neighborhood complaints about the type of people waiting for those buses – the type of people trying to get to services on Long Island. MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo says they removed the stop from the bus routes after “discussions with the neighborhood, the city and Boston police.”

Phillips thinks that when people talk about tearing the bridge down or removing bus service “it devalues what it means to have access to the island.”

“People like it out there,” she says. “They find it to be a good place to detox and stabilize. They like the structure of the programs. I think it works. It’s a service worth investing in.”

Elvis Perez agrees. “I’m very grateful for the island,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the island, I’d probably be out on the street, fucked up.”

Perez was born a block away from Woods-Mullen, at Boston Medical Center, and grew up in the South End. He became homeless after getting out of prison in 2006. He was an addict then, but the island helped him straighten his life out. He even got an apartment after a few years.

Unfortunately, it did not last long; in 2011, he went to prison again for six years on drug charges. However, since Annie Dookhan – the state crime lab chemist who tampered with evidence, handled Perez’s case, he only served two years. He went back to the island after his release. Now he says that he is going to move into a new place within a week.

Perez does no understand why Quincy wants the bridge shut down. “It’s not like we’re not there. We’re at the shelter, and you can’t get out of there,” he says. According to Perez, closing the bridge would threaten the programs on the island.

“I think I get why they don’t like the bridge,” says Holly V. “I mean, if I was a homeowner over there in Squantum, raising a family,”she continutes, then she might have a problem with the buses full of clients driving through town.

“At the same time, that island’s helping people,” Holly explains. “There’s too much over there to tear the bridge down.” Holly was an addict and used to go to the island frequently for treatment; now she is applying for law school and visits the island less often.

Even Joanna Fernandez, who is more critical of the shelter than Elvis – “There are cockroaches there!” – admits she would rather deal with it than lose access to the shelter.

Justin B., a young man in a bright-red Sox cap, says traveling over the bridge in those old RTS buses gives him anxiety, but he is glad to have access to the shelter.

“I don’t want to stay on the street,” he says. “We need a safe environment.” When I mention Rep. Ayers’ ferry alternative, he waves his hand dismissively.

The bridge is not ideal, but it is still standing, still the only option for many to get the help they need. And while Boston and Qunicy have reached a truce for now, they seem likely to butt heads over the bridge again down the road.

“They need to come to an agreement. It’s been an ongoing battle for years,” says JoAnn, who wonders why the Commonwealth cannot help with bridge repairs. “They fixed the Longfellow Bridge, the Mass. Ave Bridge, but those go to colleges. Our bridge doesn’t go to a college.”

But for JoAnn, what the troubled Long Island bridge does go to is just as important.

“I call it the bridge to recovery,” she says.

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