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editorial

Long Island span closes: A bridge to somewhere?

Rust eats into plates underneath the Long Island bridge in Quincy.
Rust eats into plates underneath the Long Island bridge in Quincy.Patricia McDonnell for the boston globe/file 2008

It would be an outrage if the state or city used taxpayer dollars to replace the rusty old bridge to Long Island in Boston Harbor, and then prevented the public from using it. With a price tag expected to reach around $90 million, one thing should be clear: Any public spending, whether for a new bridge or a replacement ferry service, must open the island to full public use.

For decades, the general public has been barred from Long Island, which is part of Boston but just offshore from the Squantum neighborhood of Quincy. Among other facilities, the island houses a homeless shelter, a summer camp, and a fire station. Workers and clients have relied on the long-decaying span, which the city finally shut down Wednesday after an inspection raised serious safety concerns.

Mayor Walsh acted wisely in shutting down the bridge, but needs to lay out a clearer rationale before replacing it. The city’s transportation dollars are limited, and it’s hard to imagine how constructing a $90 million bridge to an island with no permanent inhabitants could ever trump other priorities. Ferries can also serve the island, as they do other Harbor Islands in all but the worst weather. If it’s impractical for the shelter or other social-service programs to use a ferry, the $90 million not spent on a bridge could build a lot of shelter space in the city proper.

Before spending money on designing or building a new bridge, city officials need to offer a public accounting of why a new bridge, with all the maintenance costs that it will involve over the years, represents a better option than simply relocating important facilities like the shelter and closing superfluous ones like the fire station. And they would also have to outline a plan to open the island to recreational use, so that the public will see some benefit from money spent on construction.

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Understandably, the existing bridge irks many Quincy residents; the traffic passes through their community. Many of them would prefer that Boston demolish the bridge and use a ferry to reach the Long Island facilities, an idea that can’t be ruled out without at least an explanation. Yet if Quincy residents were allowed onto the island — along with everyone else in Massachusetts whose money is now paying for a new bridge’s design work — some of the opposition might subside. Conversely, if the area gets millions in public spending and then remains a private island for Boston city government, Quincy residents aren’t the only Massachusetts taxpayers who should feel robbed.

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