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Crowd of 100 Turns Out to Scrutinize Northern Ave. Bridge Plans, Process and Budget

Supporters of a car-free replacement bridge hold up signs at a public hearing on the Northern Avenue Bridge project on June 3, 2019. Photo by Christian MilNeil.

A crowd of roughly 100 people crowded the Seaport's District Hall Monday evening to hear Boston Chief of Streets Chris Osgood and engineers from AECOM, the city's design consultants, present a range of alternative designs for a new Northern Avenue Bridge.

A new Northern Avenue Bridge would extend Northern Avenue in the Seaport, a relatively calm, 2-lane street, to end at Atlantic Avenue next to the Rose Kennedy Greenway downtown. It's a crossing that is expected to draw heavy pedestrian and cyclist traffic: consultants estimate that as many as 2,500 pedestrians and 250 cyclists will cross the new bridge during the evening rush hour.

For drivers, on the other hand, it's a connection that would offer only slight benefits, although it would offer a marginally shorter shuttle bus trip, albeit in one direction only, and through grueling traffic, from the Seaport to North Station. As reported previously, the wider bridge options that accommodate motor vehicle traffic would also add tens of millions of dollars to the project's costs.

At last night's meeting, dozens of supporters of sustainable transportation, carrying bright signs that read "PEOPLE FIRST," turned out to ask the city for a slimmer bridge design for bikes and pedestrians only.

There are signs that the study team is heeding concerns from those advocates. Since the most recent task force meeting, the project team has added a new 30-foot-wide bridge option for analysis. A bridge of this width would still be designed for bike and pedestrian use only, but the bikeway could be wide enough to accommodate fire trucks in emergencies.

In another positive development, the city is no longer entertaining the idea that the bridge would offer dedicated "carpool" lanes (which would include most ridesharing trips on Uber and Lyft). City officials admitted that such a restriction would be impractical to enforce.

But wider bridge options that include lanes for shuttle buses or general automotive traffic remain on the table. During a presentation, Joseph Allwarden, AECOM's vice president in charge of bridge design for the northeast region, stressed that wider bridge options added "flexibility," which was the evening's preferred euphemism for letting traffic in.

Richard Martini of the Fallon Company, who serves on the Mayor's task force for the new bridge, has been an outspoken proponent of designing a bridge to include motor vehicle lanes. The new Northern Avenue Bridge, whatever its form, will land right on the doorstep of the Fallon Company's Fan Pier complex, located on the north side of Northern Avenue.

"What I'm really concerned about is flexibility," said Martini at last night's meeting. "I'm just afraid if something occurs on the other bridges, like construction, we should be creating other options. There are only so many places you can cross the Fort Point Channel."

To date, the Fallon Company has not publicly committed any funding for the new bridge, although WS Development, which owns much of the real estate on the southern side of Northern Avenue, has committed $2 million as part of its permitting negotiations.

Currently, $58 million has been earmarked for a new bridge - which is not adequate to fund most of the bridge designs that would accommodate motor vehicles.

But Osgood gave the audience the impression that money would not be a constraint. Responding to a question about where additional funds for a more-expensive motor vehicle bridge would come from, Osgood answered that "we can develop a financing plan later."

The city will accept public comments on the bridge designs through June 20 - an online feedback form is available at the city's project website:

UPDATE:  (June 5): The city has posted an electronic version of their presentation, featuring the four design options and varying cost estimates, on the project website.

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