BOSTON DREDGING PROJECT SLOGGING ALONG SLOWLY RED TAPE MIRES 22-YEAR-OLD PLAN

BOSTON DREDGING PROJECT SLOGGING ALONG SLOWLY RED TAPE MIRES 22-YEAR-OLD PLAN

Richard Nixon was making a political comeback, Carl Yastrzemski was making plays in left field for the Boston Red Sox and the Massachusetts Port Authority was making plans to dredge Boston harbor. The year was 1968.

Now, 22 years later, the names Nixon and Yastrzemski are part of history and Massport is still planning to dredge the harbor.Port officials say the slow pace of progress is far from unusual. The process of getting federally funded dredging projects under way can span decades, even entire careers, taking longer in some cases than the siting of a nuclear power plant.

"To make something happen through three levels of government, you've got to have someone pushing something awfully hard," said Anne D. Aylward, Massport maritime director.

In Boston's case, there has been some bureaucratic progress on dredging of three vital harbor tributaries but the envisioned completion date is far away: May 1995. The $26.2 million project will deepen the lower Mystic River, the Chelsea River and the Reserved Channel in South Boston.

The project is seen as a major benefit to shipping, which now must restrict hours of transit and play the tide to reach many harbor terminals.

Environmental concerns have been one major hang-up.

Peter Jackson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager in Boston, said results of bioassay tests on dredging samples will be completed this week to determine whether further bio-accumulation tests on marine life will be needed.

After that, the pre-construction engineering and design phase will be set to start in September, lasting through late 1993.

Final state and federal environmental approvals of the project depend upon disposal plans for 2.4 million cubic yards of dredge material, now slated for dumping in a natural deepwater hole in Massachusetts Bay known as the "foul area."

While use of the site is nearly certain, Mr. Jackson warns that a rejection could still kill the project.

The urgency of dredging the 35-foot channels to 40 feet was highlighted in January when sections of a decayed seawall collapsed into the Chelsea River, closing the narrow waterway and cutting off most of the region's oil terminal capacity from tanker traffic for five days.

"If that waterway closes, we do not have a way to replace the capacity that sits on its banks," Ms. Aylward said.

The political process also is slow. A biennial federal authorization that could speed the project is still before the Senate Water Resources Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, despite a statement on March 1 by its chairman, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., that he would move the legislation to the full Senate Environment and Public Works Committee "with dispatch."

The committee first authorized a feasibility study for the project on March 1, 1968.

Port and Army Corps officials say the pace of federally funded dredging projects has accelerated since ports assumed a larger financial share with the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, but they agree the pace could hardly have been slower.

"Now with our quote, unquote partnership, while we do see some progress, there's a lot of work that still needs to be done," said R. Erik Stromberg, president of the American Association of Port Authorities.

"It can be a little frustrating, working with the corps, getting them to move . . . but I will say in fairness, we're working on it."

Mr. Jackson said that since the 1986 Act, the corps has committed itself to completing feasibility studies for dredging projects within two years in an attempt to match the pace of state and private efforts.

Ms. Aylward estimated Massport's share of the Boston project at nearly $10 million, including 25 percent of the $26.2 million total cost to be paid up front after a local cooperation agreement is signed with the federal government, another 10 percent to be paid back over time and an additional amount for deepening of berthing areas and relocation of utilities.

Officials also will have to coordinate the construction phase, expected to start in early 1994, with two major water-related projects - the $6.1 billion Boston harbor cleanup and the $4.4 billion Central Artery-Third Harbor Tunnel highway project. So far, planning among the state and federal agencies involved has been preliminary.

"We're aware of what they're doing and they're generally aware of what we're doing," Mr. Jackson said.