Remains of Boston’s ’Highway in Sky’ Given Second Life

Tue January 20, 2004 - National Edition

BOSTON (AP) Chunk by chunk, beam by beam, Boston’s Central Artery, once heralded as a modern "Highway in the Sky," is being reduced to rubble.

Every day, workers cut away pieces of the 12,500 tons (11,340 t) of steel that formed the highway’s skeleton and rip up more of the 36,000 tons (32,600 t) of concrete road surface.

But as the elevated roadway –– made obsolete by the opening of the Big Dig’s new Interstate 93 tunnel –– fades from the city’s skyline, remnants will remain scattered near and far.

The steel is being shipped to out-of state facilities to be melted down and recycled, while the concrete is crushed to form aggregate for new roads or foundations.

For those demolishing the Central Artery, there’s some satisfaction knowing the remains of a road that became synonymous with massive traffic tie-ups will be put to good use.

"It’s being used all over," said Bob Mercurio, general manager of Northgate Recycling, licensed to crush concrete from the Central Artery. "Instead of being suspended up in the sky, it’s going into roads on the ground.’

The demolition is the penultimate step in a two-decade effort to build a sleek interstate highway under downtown Boston. The Big Dig has become almost as renowned for its $14.6 billion price tag as the engineering wonders that made it a reality.

City leaders are hoping the portion of the overhead highway nearest the FleetCenter is cleared away before this summer’s Democratic National Convention.

The final step comes when the 30 acres of newly cleared downtown land is transformed into a series of parks and surface streets.

Before reaching that goal, the hulking green artery must be ripped down.

Because the Central Artery snakes through the heart of the city, removing it requires a delicate touch, with cranes and other heavy equipment operating inches from neighboring buildings.

Workers must first rip the concrete away from the steel frame, leaving the girders exposed. They can then shear away sections of the steel, after first removing the lead-filled green paint from the area around each cut.

Each beam is then lowered to the ground and trucked off.

"It is a controlled, surgical removal of the steel rather than just dropping it to the ground and cleaning it up," said John Ruffo, a vice president of Testa Corp., the firm handling the demolition. "We have to be careful about what portions we remove so we don’t weaken other portions prematurely."

The cost of demolishing the Central Artery and a bridge over the Charles River leading to it is about $62 million. The company in charge of demolition, in this case Testa, is responsible for disposing of the remains.

The next stop for much of the steel is Prolerized New England in nearby Everett.

The company, which ships scrap steel worldwide, is hoping to buy as much of the artery’s steel as it can.

Some of the steel arrives already cut into neat 5-ft.-by-2-ft. (1.5 by .6 m) sections, small enough to be fed into a furnace. Other beams arrive as long as 40 ft. (12.2 m) and are cut into smaller sections.

From there, the scrap steel is loaded onto ships bound for other parts of the United States and overseas. It could be turned back into new beams or a range of other uses.

"Steel is the one commodity that can be recycled over and over again," according to company spokesman Tony Liburdi. "It could end up in a car. You don’t know. It all depends on the mill."

Concrete isn’t as lucrative. Contractors typically pay companies like Northgate Recycling in nearby Revere to take it off their hands. The going rate is about $180 per trailer truck load, approximately 30 tons (27.2).

The concrete chunks are then fed into a crusher equipped with magnets to separate out reinforcing steel rods lodged in the concrete.

A furnace or crusher may seem like an ignominious end for a roadway designed to revitalize Boston, then struggling with the urban blight that plagued many U.S. cities after World War II.

Almost from the start, the project stirred controversy as it plowed through Boston, chewing a path through old neighborhoods like the North End and the city’s financial district.

By the time it opened in 1959, the Central Artery trumpeted in newspapers as Boston’s "Highway in the Sky’"had already incurred the anger of some city dwellers. Its reputation would only decline.

Designed to carry 75,000 cars a day high above Boston’s crooked streets, the Central Artery proved no match for the relentless surge in traffic. In its final years, the road carried up to 200,000 cars a day, transforming it into a parking lot in the sky.

Not everyone involved in the demolition of the Central Artery feels the weight of history.

"It’s just rubble by the time it gets to us," said Jerry Forger, vice president of Benevento Sand and Stone in Wilmington, MA. "It has no resemblance to any history."