Boston is moving forward with plans to rebuild the Long Island Bridge and restore access to an addiction treatment center and homeless shelter on the island, Mayor Michelle Wu announced in a news conference Thursday.

After securing a “significant” permit from the state, the city plans to begin construction by spring of 2024 with the goal of opening the bridge within four years, Wu said.

The mayor allocated $81 million in the city’s fiscal year 2024 budget to rebuild the bridge and $38 million to repair and stabilize existing buildings on the island, work that’s set to begin midway though the bridge reconstruction project. The total cost of the bridge is expected to exceed $100 million. An exact cost of rehabilitating the medical campus was not provided.

“When the bridge is done, the first phase of the campus will also be available and we can get right to it,” Wu said. “We can't waste any time — any more time — in this project.”

State authorities approved the city’s plan under a program that requires projects provide “greater benefits than detriments to the public’s right” in waterways. Existing parts of the old bridge will be repurposed for the new construction.

Wu says this permit allows the city to accelerate its work on the long-disputed project, now in its final permitting stages with just two remaining reviews.

“This has always been about more than one particular stretch of infrastructure,” Wu said. “This is about people and the opportunity for an island to really unlock the pathways to recovery, stabilization, workforce development, community and so much more.”

“This has always been about more than one particular stretch of infrastructure. This is about people.”
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said the next step is to contract a bridge project management firm to oversee the proposal and begin reconstruction on the island’s 350,000-square-foot, 11-building public health campus.

“We don't necessarily plan to replicate the programming that was on the island previously,” Ojikotu said during Thursday’s news conference. “Since 2014, our understanding of what is possible, what is evidence-based and what is most effective has evolved … we believe that we can and will do better.”

Ojikotu said it is not clear how many people will be served on Long Island, but “we hope that the campus will eventually serve several hundreds of individuals at one time and certainly create opportunities for recovery and stability that don't currently exist within our system.”

The Long Island Bridge was shut down in 2014 after the Massachusetts Department of Transportation declared it unsafe for use. People receiving treatment at the existing shelter were evacuated from the island, creating a concentration of displaced and unhoused residents in need of services.

Within a few years, encampments began to appear at the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue — known as Mass. and Cass — near multiple homeless shelters, hospitals, recovery centers and substance use clinics. The city has several times tried to clear tents from the area and move people to shelters or, in some cases, incarceration, but crowds and tents have repeatedly returned.

Wu said the reconstruction of the Long Island shelter is “a chance to get going on what could be a foundational, fundamental, transformational change for the dynamic of how we can serve individuals,” and a shift in the city’s current model, which is to “provide services person-by-person wherever possible.”

After a spike in Boston Police incident reports at Mass. and Cass in July, non-city outreach workers were pulled from the area due to “a new level of public safety alarm,” Wu told host Jimmy Hills on his program “Java with Jimmy” last week.

Within the next few weeks, Wu said, the city will work to codify an ordinance “that would empower the Boston police to have clear authority and ability … to make sure that we’re not shielding and creating the opportunities for weapons and trafficking and other types of criminal activity in the area,” Wu said Thursday.

The city does not plan to conduct another sweep of the area “without also being able to kind of take stock of what the impacts of this would be in the need for immediate overnight housing” and longer-term arrangements, Wu said. “We also want to be sure that we are completely prepared for any impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.”

Throughout the construction of the Long Island campus, Wu said work will continue at Mass. and Cass, where “the need continues to outpace what is available.”

Proposals to rebuild the Long Island Bridge have been met with years of opposition from Quincy leaders and residents, who fear that the project could increase traffic and cause environmental harm.

Quincy has spent more than $400,000 on legal fees to fight the construction, and issued appeals against four related requests for permits and licenses.

Wu said she expects Quincy to appeal the state’s permit approval. “I spoke with [Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch] yesterday, and he did let me know.”

Koch confirmed to GBH News that Quincy will appeal the decision on the permit.

“For the life of me, I cannot figure out why we’re still talking about a 10-year solution to a crisis that exists today, particularly considering the Island could already be in full use utilizing water transportation,” Koch said in a statement.

“I understand the City of Boston’s desire to make their constituents believe that every decision over the last 5 years of this process is some kind of final green light for a new bridge. The fact is that’s just not the case,” he continued. “Beyond the compelling appeal we plan to file for this one permit, there are multiple permits still required. We will continue to ensure that this community’s serious and legitimate concerns relative to the bridge’s design and environmental impacts are heard at every level.”

Chris Osgood, the city’s senior advisor for infrastructure, said the expected appeal “could slow down the issuance of the final permits, but it wouldn't slow down a lot of the sort of work that we need to be doing to get us to break ground.”

The services that were offered on Long Island nearly a decade ago were “far from perfect,” said Brendan Little, who joined the press conference to share testimony of his experience with homelessness and substance use disorder that led him to participate in a rehabilitation program on the island.

“I had been sleeping in highway tunnels and sidewalks in Boston,” Little said. His first night at Long Island, “I slept in a comfortable bed with an ocean view, a world away from the dark gravel of the Copley Square off-ramp tunnel … it made me briefly consider that I was worthy of that space, a consideration that was the first step in my recovery journey.”

The city is now positioned to do “something that never happened when the island was operational,” Little said, by creating a full continuum of programming and improving public health services.

Mary Blake contributed reporting.

Updated: August 10, 2023
This story was updated to include comments from Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch.