North Washington St. Bridge Plans Gets a New Look:Residents Like the Look, But Concerns Over Auto Capacity

Residents caught a look at the redesigned North Washington St. Bridge.

Residents caught a look at the redesigned North Washington St. Bridge

Charlestown residents and members of the Charlestown Preservation Society’s (CPS) Design Review Board cheered the beautiful and modern design of the proposed, $90 million North Washington Street Bridge, but jeered the fact that the proposal didn’t seem to have expanded capacity to handle newfound traffic from projects like the proposed Wynn Casino.

City Engineer Para Jayasinghe presented the Board and a healthy crowd of interested residents with an expansive and all-inclusive 45-minute presentation of the new bridge at Monday night’s meeting.

He indicated that the project would be fully funded by the state and federal government, that it would be put out to bid at the end of 2016 and that it would likely take three years of very complex construction to build.

That would put it opening around 2020, he said.

It should give plenty of time to work out the kinks – of which the major kink is that many in attendance did not believe the new bridge would be able to handle mounting traffic that already exists and would be expected to increase with new developments like the casino.

The bridge includes two lanes of inbound traffic and two lanes of outbound traffic. On each side, there is a well-proportioned bicycle lane and a nice pedestrian walkway to accommodate the Freedom Trail.

Interesting bump outs in the central part of the bridge would be landscaped and would be a place to pause an notice the beauty of the place – something that is quite hard to do with the rusty, near-death circa 1898 bridge that currently spans the waterway.

“We wanted to create a space in the middle where people can stop and smell the roses and enjoy the space,” Jayasinghe said. “It is also going to be green on two fronts. It has to be environmentally sustainable, but we also brought in some green landscaping elements on the bridge.”

He said he is “extremely” confident that he can work out a licensed maintenance agreement with corporate interests abutting the bridge so that the continued maintenance of the landscaping element would contractually fall on those entities. He also hinted that some interesting names for the new bridge have also been floated around, perhaps something that would harken to notable Bostonians of the distant past.

White trellises on the center span of the bridge act as a design element and, as noted by those in attendance, sort of mimicked a “fish skeleton.”

The beauty of the structure, however, couldn’t mask some concerns about the practical.

“Bike lanes and pedestrian paths are certainly key parts of a sustainable city, but if we’re not accommodating the traffic citizens will create in 2020, we’ve got a serious problem,” said Board member John Benson. “I don’t think you want that.”

One resident in the audience echoed that sentiment, as did a few others.

One woman said she recently spent one hour getting from her Charlestown home to Mass General in the snowstorm aftermath – and she fears a bridge designed with only four lanes would make that a routine when casino traffic hits town.

“The bridge is beautiful, but I don’t see capacity improved and with the casino coming in that will be a problem,” she said. “I think we should anticipate more cars. To spend all of this money if it’s not going to handle the future capacity – it’s just not money well spent.”

Some suggested that the bicycle lane should be minimized or eliminated to add more lanes for cars.

Jayasinghe said forgoing a bike lane for more cars would be a “non-starter” for City officials.

However, he said he didn’t believe the lack of vehicle expansion would be a problem.

He said the bridge has been designed for flexibility so that it can be reconfigured in the future without a lot of effort – showing the crowd that a fifth lane could be configured in the middle.

He added that it will be the signalization at either end, in Charlestown and the North End, that will solve the problem of traffic backups.

“We need to reduce the capacity at the ends by getting the traffic flowing and utilize smart lights to move that traffic along,” he said. “Most of the time, it’s not the middle of the bridge where the build up is, it’s at the intersections. We believe that in 2020 the traffic signals will be far better at chatting with each other. They will need to talk to each other…I can put 200 lanes in the center of the bridge, but if I don’t have stop lights that work well together, it will make no difference.”

Jayasinghe said the City doesn’t traditionally hire outside designers to draw up their bridges, but this time it did due to the fact that the bridge is in an iconic place and that it needed to work well in concert with the Bunker Hill/Zakim Bridge.

To make sure that happened, they contracted with Rosales and Associates to get the services of Miguel Rosales. Rosales designed the Bunker Hill/Zakim Bridge and a similar pedestrian bridge on Revere Beach. He also is the designer of the footbridge in the Back Bay that will one day span Storrow Drive.

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