For cyclists and pedestrians, the long-proposed footbridge between Assembly Square in Somerville and Encore Boston Harbor in Everett wouldn’t just link two mega-developments or provide a direct MBTA connection to the casino -- it would also tie together the network of biking and walking paths along both sides of the Mystic River.
“We’re in favor of a bridge to make this connection. That is kind of a crucial connection for the region — not just for Everett or Somerville, but all the communities from the north,” said Brendan Kearney, deputy director for the group WalkBoston. “It would be disappointing to see all these planning efforts that are coming together go out the window.”
Encore owner Wynn Resorts agreed to pay for a study of a footbridge as part of its environmental permitting, and later paid for a design. The company even hinted it would be willing to pay for the bridge to be built, which officials estimated in 2018 would cost $23 million.
But the Globe reported Thursday that Everett officials are asking the state’s gambling regulators for $200,000 to study a gondola system that would stretch farther into the city. While city officials hope both projects could happen, they acknowledge that Wynn will likely only help pay for one. And the city’s application to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission states that the gondola river crossing is “currently being studied and proposed by Encore."
The proposal comes a couple years after a Seaport District developer proposed an aerial tram over Summer Street from South Station, an idea that has since petered out. It was a relatively novel concept, using a gondola to beat traffic congestion down below. More commonly, the systems are used to overcome geographic barriers, like steep hills or waterways like the Mystic.
Some footbridge supporters said there should be no discussion of a gondola system without a commitment to a bridge.
“As a baseline we need the bike and pedestrian bridge, period," said Stacy Thompson, director of the Livable Streets Alliance, which pushes for better transit, biking, and walking connections. "If they can make a case to do a gondola above and beyond that, maybe there’s interest.”
Encore officials said it is too early to determine the form of a future Mystic crossing.
“We are in the earliest of stages regarding the concept of the gondola, and, as such, it’s premature to speculate on where this will net out,” spokeswoman Rosie Salisbury said. “Our primary goal on any initiative that connects Somerville and Everett is to provide viable transportation options for our employees and guests.”
Cycling and walking advocates see the footbridge as the key to linking existing and planned paths in Somerville, Cambridge, Medford, and Boston to the Northern Strand trail, a partially built path from Everett to Lynn that runs through Malden, Revere, and Saugus. Everett officials have also worked out a deal to extend the southern end of the trail to the Northern Strand to the casino’s waterfront, where it would meet the proposed footbridge.
Galen Mook, director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, highlighted the Northern Strand communities in a statement criticizing the gondola proposal as “serving the interests of the casino, and not Everett or the region as a whole.”
That path, by the way, received a major boost Friday, when state environmental officials announced work would get underway soon to finalize almost all of the Northern Strand by 2022 under a $13.7 million contract.
The work includes extending the trail to Lynn and finishing parts that are currently unpaved, while adding benches, landscaping, community gardens, a bocce court, and play equipment along the route, said Kurt Gaertner, assistant secretary for environmental policy in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. While the Baker administration has not taken a formal position on the footbridge, Gaertner said it “seems like a practical way of getting across the river.”
But it’s still to be determined whether that Northern Strand path will cross the Mystic or end in Everett, where gondolas would be flying overhead.