Is it smarter to have walkers dodge traffic at one of Boston's busiest intersections or to rebuild an expensive pedestrian bridge that takes walkers the length of two football fields to cross a street?
This vexing question about the fate of the Leverett Circle pedestrian bridge is one of the residual controversies from the $15 billion Big Dig project that reverberates at the neighborhood level, long after the completion of most of the heavy lifting on the tunnel system.
Two years ago, Big Dig workers tore down the elaborate set of concrete ramps that connected the Science Park MBTA station with the West End neighborhood and the Museum of Science.
As time passed, some walkers grew accustomed to crossing the streets at ground level, without climbing stairs or ramps, even though crossing in traffic was at times treacherous. They began to wonder why the state should spend $4 million, or perhaps double that amount by some estimates, to rebuild ramps that will require pedestrians to walk the distance of two football fields just to cross a street.
"Why waste taxpayer money to build a bridge that hardly anybody is going to use?" asked Malek Al-Khatib, 58, a past president of the West End Civic Association.
But just as adamant are those, especially older residents, who have long depended on the bridge and who fear they will be at peril if they have to cross busy streets at ground level. Besides, they argue, the Big Dig designers promised to replace the bridge after the completion of a link between the Central Artery tunnels and Storrow Drive. The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has set aside $4 million for the replacement.
"Nobody said, with all the Big Digs and the artery, 'Oh, by the way, the bridge is going away, and it ain't coming back,' " said Lee Grant, 68, who lives in the neighborhood and attended a forum late last month on the subject.
"We need the ramp; we really need the ramp," Louise Thomas, 65, said.
The neighborhood is full of walkers. In addition, the Science Museum attracts thousands of school children and tourists who do not know their way around.
"If one school child runs out into the street and gets run over, we're going to be building that bridge tomorrow," said Bob O'Brien, executive director of the Downtown North Association.
The debate has festered as the project has dragged on longer than anticipated. The Turnpike Authority has no estimate of how long it will take to rebuild the bridge or what it will cost, because design work is not yet complete, said Mac Daniel, a spokesman for the authority. State Representative Martha M. Walz, who represents the area, said she has heard estimates of as much as $8 million from turnpike staff.
Michael Lewis, the Turnpike Authority's construction chief, has told residents that Big Dig engineers were distracted by last summer's tunnel collapse, but are now prepared to focus on Leverett Circle. At the forum, he showed them a computer simulation of a new design and promised that he will address safety concerns, with or without the overpass.
But as Lewis showed new renderings of the overpass, it became clear that it will take a lot of effort to cross the bridge. Pedestrians would need to walk 660 feet to cross the bridge between the museum corner and the West End. At ground level, the same walk is only 190 feet long.
In addition, the bridge is designed to connect with the MBTA station at the mezzanine level, rather than the platform above, meaning commuters will have to walk up stairs if they want to take the Green Line trolley, whether they use the overpass or not. The MBTA has its own plans to make the station accessible for disabled riders, but has not presented them publicly.
"Nobody in a wheelchair is going to use the ramps, so it's a waste of money that could [otherwise] be spent on elevators," said Robert Whitney, president of the board of the Massachusetts Disability Law Center.
The bridge debate has excited passions in the neighborhood for more than a year. Councilor Michael P. Ross said it has been too divisive; the community is probably split 50-50. Without "overwhelming" opposition to the bridge, the state should honor its commitment to rebuild it, he said.
Besides, Ross said, "we need to move on with life."
Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com