If you heard a cheer coming from the southeast corner of the state last Sunday, it was the unexpected glee of thousands of Cape-goers who anticipated one last nightmarish return over the Sagamore Bridge but found that repair work had finished a few days early, with a surprise wrap-up Saturday night.
E-mail had poured into Starts and Stops about the steel repairs that caused weeknight congestion and slowed traffic to a crawl for miles on Sundays before work wrapped up last weekend.
Some, like reader Bill Murphy of Barnstable and Medford, wanted to know why workers and especially equipment were not cleared from the bridge for weekends. “They are on rubber wheels. What is the problem?” Murphy wrote, volunteering “to drive the machines off and on the bridge if this is what it takes.”
Many, like reader Malcolm Benvie, asked why — with the Sagamore Bridge cut from four to two lanes, one each way — officials did not switch remaining lanes to outbound- or inbound-only at peak times, while diverting those heading the other way to the Bourne Bridge.
Others wanted to know about improving flow to and from Cape Cod by adding a third bridge to supplement the two four-lane spans that date to the 1930s.
Even without construction closures, those bridges are pinch points, wrote reader Kevin Pawsey. The UK transplant said he started an education technology business in Hyannis in 2006 before relocating to Plymouth, citing bridge-related “disruption to the business from lost staff days, lost meetings, hours to get to the airport, and frustrations getting home. . . . They need to find a long-term solution.”
First things first. The US Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and maintains the canal and the bridges, says that moving equipment off and on the span was impractical: The barrels, trailers, forklifts, and especially the Inspector Gadget-style cherry pickers that lift workers 100 feet into the air require four to six hours to remove and an equal amount of time to be moved back into place.
The bridge was fully open for Easter and Patriots Day weekends, but more frequent weekend pauses would have increased the cost and extended the project, forcing resumption of the work in the fall, said John MacPherson, assistant canal manager for the Corps of Engineers. That would have meant pushing the finish to October. (The Corps of Engineers thought that only the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day was sacrosanct, but drew the ire of local residents in 2009 when Sagamore work wreaked havoc in September, which business leaders called a vital tourism month.)
Though the mild winter might have been enticing, starting earlier was not an option, because the equipment would have blocked plows and risked making the bridge impassable in a snowstorm, MacPherson said. Meanwhile, hiring more workers once the project began would not have speeded it up, given the limited room for equipment. “You can add all the additional ironworkers you want, but all they’re going to be doing is standing on the bridge looking up,” he said.
As for rerouting traffic and making bridges one-way, a task force of local, state, and federal officials and Cape business leaders considered those options but worried that such changes would confuse drivers and cause more harm than good, said Thomas S. Cahir, chairman of the task force and a former lawmaker.
“When you talk about two lanes off on Sunday or none off on Friday or rerouting folks to the Bourne Bridge, it just really does become incredibly logistically problematic,” said Cahir, who now runs the Cape’s bus transit system and is advocating for a Boston-to-Hyannis seasonal train,using freight tracks.
Some Cape leaders thanked the Corps of Engineers for cooperating and avoiding peak months. Others blasted it for not doing enough. Representative Randy Hunt of Sandwich, on his Politics Humor Blog, called the failure to open all lanes on Mother’s Day a “big middle finger” from the Corps of Engineers.
Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said the corps ignored requests to vacate the bridge for that weekend and the full week of April school vacation, causing an economic impact that reverberated to Provincetown.
“You can’t just shut down 50 percent of the capacity of these bridges and expect there won’t be hell to pay,” she said.
Northcross said that local officials have been advocating for years for funds to study short- and long-term transportation improvements, including a third bridge, but got a cold shoulder from Beacon Hill, despite being what she called a “donor region” that sends more money out in taxes than it receives in aid.
Paul Niedzwiecki, executive director of the Cape’s regional planning agency, said such a study could cost $1 million, to thoroughly consider land-use, traffic, and economic and environmental impacts of everything from smoothing the Cape approach to the Bourne Bridge (similar to the flyover on the mainland side of the Sagamore) to building a third bridge.
Given the challenges of securing funding even for a study, construction of a new bridge, probably running into hundreds of millions of dollars, is decades off.
But moving Exit 1 on Route 6 — hard against the Sagamore Bridge, by the Christmas Tree Shop — to alleviate a problematic merge is “low-hanging fruit and something we should move on quickly,” Niedzwiecki said.
Pass change a sucker punch
Nearly as many e-mails came in about a surprise change to the MBTA’s 12-ride commuter rail pass as about traffic to Cape Cod. On April 9, I wrote about the T’s plan to eliminate that 12-ride punch card (valid for six months) and replace it with a 10-ride card good for only 30 days, to take effect with all the other fare and service changes July 1.
The rail passes have achieved some notoriety for affording free rides, with conductors unable to reach everyone on crowded trains, among other reasons. That has long infuriated riders who prepay for unlimited monthly passes that can cost $200 or more but cannot be stretched for free rides or used beyond their month of issuance.
The T still plans to switch from 12-ride to 10-ride passes July 1. But in mid-April, it abruptly and quietly changed the validity of 12-ride passes from six months to one month.
Reader Gary Chase of West Roxbury, who bikes to work except in rain or snow, bought one of the passes from a Ruggles vending machine April 23 and was surprised to discover that it was about to expire, mostly unused. He said he called customer service and was rebuffed, told that the T had publicized the change, including on its website. (If they did, neither Chase nor I could find it.)
“The T won’t give me my money back, and I feel very cheated by their changing the rules without any real warning,” he wrote.
In an e-mail, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo confirmed that the T made the change quickly, without warning:
“It had come to the T’s attention that hoarding was going to be a strategy employed by some seeking to avoid the modest fare increase on July 1,’’ wrote Pesaturo. “The MBTA experienced the same situation in late 2003 when people began hoarding tokens prior to the January 2004 fare increase. Stocks of tokens at various stations were being depleted on a daily basis. Recalling the words of George Santayana — ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ — the MBTA, this time, took proactive steps.”
Pesaturo said the T posted signs at North and South stations and informed customers at ticket windows. That is unhelpful to those who do not travel to those stations or who use vending machines instead of waiting at ticket windows.
He said those wanting refunds can visit the Downtown Crossing customer service office or mail their passes, not for cash, but for replacement passes or equal value on subway-bus CharlieCards.
Chase said he mailed his pass, then had a frustrating encounter on his next trip, when the conductor tried to charge him a 50 percent penalty for using cash on board. When he recounted his story, a fellow passenger stood up, offering him a punch on his own 12-ride ticket — he, too, had bought a pass that was expiring before he could use it.