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Will Northern Ave. Bridge Project Use Public Funds to Benefit Private Shuttles?

2:49 PM EDT on May 6, 2020

A photo illustration of what a new Northern Avenue Bridge would look like with a dedicated lane for privately-operated shuttles. Photo montage by StreetsblogMASS, based on bridge renderings from the City of Boston.

The City of Boston will spend millions of dollars more on a larger design that allows private commuter shuttles on the new Northern Avenue Bridge across the Fort Point Channel, in spite of what project managers had previously characterized as "overwhelming" public support for a cheaper bridge designed for bikes and pedestrians.

Last year, engineers estimated a $46-$83 million price range for a 24-foot-wide bike and pedestrian bridge that could still accommodate occasional use by emergency vehicles.

The price tag for the updated bridge design, which has been widened and bulked up to accommodate motor vehicle traffic, has ballooned to $100 million. Mayor Walsh's 2021 streets budget, which faces a hearing today in the City Council's Ways and Means Committee, would authorize an additional $54 million in city spending (in addition to $31 million already pledged from Boston taxpayers), to pay for the increased project costs. The remaining $15 million would come from federal funds and neighborhood developers.

At an online public meeting Wednesday evening, Para Jayasinghe, an engineer from the Boston Public Works Department, revealed that the city wanted to buy a larger bridge to maintain "operational flexibility," and potentially allow private vehicles onto the new bridge in the future.

In new project renderings shared Wednesday, project managers showed a bridge that included two 24-foot-wide spans splitting around a sunken mid-channel promenade that will function as a public plaza:

The eastern, harbor-side span will, at least initially, be reserved for pedestrians, and half of the western span would be painted red for a "transit" lane.

However, because there are no planned MBTA routes that would use a new Northern Avenue Bridge, the only vehicles that would use that lane are private shuttle routes that serve the Seaport's office developments.

During the public comment segment of Wednesday's meeting, most members of the public who had a chance to speak expressed concerns about the inclusion of private shuttles on the new bridge, including remarks about how shuttle traffic is likely to back up from the jammed intersection with Atlantic Avenue on the Greenway, and concerns about shuttles splashing road grime onto pedestrians in the sunken plaza below the shuttle lane.

Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty, one of the few elected officials who were able to speak, said that if the bridge includes a lane for shuttles, only electric vehicles should be allowed to use it.

"I would be very concerned about people breathing in diesel fumes around these shuttles," said Flaherty.


Car Lanes Would Bust the Budget for Boston’s New Northern Avenue Bridge

Advocates will have a second, potentially more meaningful chance to weigh in on the bridge design on Thursday afternoon. That's when the Boston City Council's Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on the Mayor's budget proposal, which would authorize millions of dollars in additional funds for a larger bridge.

Advocacy organizations including WalkBoston, the LivableStreets Alliance, and Boston Cyclists Union are calling on their supporters to "ask that the City commit to a bridge design that is only open to pedestrians, bicycles, and emergency vehicles."

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