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City unveils 4 proposals for a new Northern Avenue bridge

The old Northern Avenue Bridge has been kept in the open position since 2014, when it was closed because of safety concerns.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

After months of planning, city officials have unveiled their ideas for a new Northern Avenue Bridge. Many members of the task force advising them were not impressed.

At a meeting Thursday, several community advocates and residents said they wanted to see options for rebuilding the historic bridge over Fort Point Channel that would devote it solely to pedestrians and cyclists. Instead, they saw four versions designed to carry buses.

“I’ve been hearing bike and ped, bike and ped, something quiet, slow, and simple like we had before,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the LiveableStreets Alliance. “No one’s really asked for [a shuttle bus bridge].”

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The debate over the purpose of a new Northern Avenue Bridge has simmered ever since the Walsh administration began planning to rebuild the span, which last carried cars in 1997 and was closed altogether in 2014 because of safety concerns.

Some people involved with business in the Seaport District see the bridge as another way to move commuters out of the traffic-clogged neighborhood, particularly on buses to downtown and shuttles to North Station. But many residents of Fort Point and nearby neighborhoods say the span has potential to be a peaceful path for pedestrians and cyclists, who also cross the channel in huge numbers every day.

City engineers want to settle on a strategy soon, begin formal design later this year, and aim to start construction in 2021. For the first time Thursday, they showed off four visions for the span, ranging from a plan that would restore much of the historic steel structure of the old bridge — at a cost of up to $160 million — to a basic, flat span that could potentially be built for less than one-third that much.

All four would be wide enough to accommodate sidewalks, bike lanes, and a lane dedicated to buses and other high-occupancy vehicles traveling from the Seaport onto Atlantic Avenue. They could also be modified over time as the needs of the Seaport, and the city, evolve, said Chris Osgood, Walsh’s chief of streets.

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“We want a wider bridge to have flexibility for the future,” Osgood said. “To some degree, that flexibility could be lost if we go too narrow.”

But with width comes added expense, and it’s unclear where money to rebuild the bridge might come from. Walsh has promised $46 million in city funds, and Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston secured $10 million in federal funding during the 2000s, which is still available. Beyond $2 million pledged by Seaport Square developer WS, the rest of the financing would likely need to come from state, federal, and private funds.

A lack of money could force planners to sacrifice design, said Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, especially if they’re assuming a bridge must carry buses in addition to bikes and foot traffic.

“We’re asking taxpayers to pay an awful lot of money for something that some want, and some don’t,” Galer said. “A lot of people want something they could get for a lot less money.”

But a bus bridge also has many advocates.

Traffic studies done for the task force show such a bridge could shave a few minutes off the shuttle ride from the Seaport to North Station, compared with crossing the Moakley Bridge. That’s valuable time to some commuters. And developers in the Seaport said closing the Northern Avenue Bridge to car traffic completely could prove a colossal mistake, especially if any of the area’s three other bridges had to be temporarily shut down.

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“If we don’t make sure we have some flexibility here, we could live to regret it,” said Richard Martini, an executive at Fan Pier developer Fallon Co. “I would be very careful about this being a bike and pedestrian-only bridge.”

Another meeting is scheduled for next month, with a public meeting likely to follow soon after.

Asked whether either of those would include bike and pedestrian-only designs, Osgood said he’d need to talk to his engineers.

“We got some good feedback,” he said. “There’s a lot of things in play.”

City of Boston
City of Boston
City of Boston
City of Boston

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.