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Replacement of Cape Cod bridges moves forward with federal-state deal

The state will own the spans and control the $1 billion-plus construction project

The Bourne Bridge and its counterpart in Sagamore are poised for replacement.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

The state and federal governments took an important step forward in the lengthy process to replace the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, with Massachusetts assuming control of the $1 billion-plus project, officials said Tuesday.

The deal, signed Tuesday, would put the state in charge of replacing the two signature Cape Cod Canal crossings and transfer ownership from the Army Corps of Engineers to the state Department of Transportation once the work is complete.

The agreement lays out the process for a project that cleared a significant hurdle several months ago when the Army Corps determined the bridges, which opened in 1935, should be replaced, not fixed.

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“At least people agree something needs to be done,” said Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce and a longtime proponent of a full-scale replacement.

Two key decisions have yet to be reached, however: When will construction start, and where will the money come from?

Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the next step is to begin a public input process to help develop plans for the bridges, such as for the design and precise alignment of each span. The new structures would rise next to the existing ones, which would stay in service until the work is finished.

Though new bridges would cost more than $1 billion, the Army Corps decided that was preferable to massive rehabilitation of the aging structures, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require roads to be closed for significant periods of time.

The Army Corps has recommended that the bridges have two through lanes in each direction, plus a third “auxiliary lane” for slowing, accelerating, and merging on both sides of each bridge. The lanes would be wider than those on the existing bridges, and there would be bicycle and pedestrian paths, instead of the narrow sidewalks that exist today.

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“Local city and town leaders, community officials, residents, business owners, and visitors can now . . . imagine a day when two new bridges will be in place over the canal, built to modern-day standards,” Governor Charlie Baker said at a virtual event finalizing the agreement on Tuesday, also attended by Democratic US senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey.

Though the state will now lead the construction, funding will probably still come from the federal government. The Army Corps and the Baker administration have made a commitment to work together to identify a source.

“A vision without funding is a hallucination,” said Markey, who made a promise to secure money for the project through the Senate.

US Representative Bill Keating, a Bourne Democrat, said an infrastructure bill the House passed last week includes possible grant money for the project. Keating suggested that having the state own the bridges should help win federal money because the government won’t be on the hook for the long-term operating and maintenance costs.

The agreement notes, however, that the ownership transfer would require legislation.

The state may also benefit by taking the lead on construction, Keating said. For one thing, the state is more experienced than the Army Corps at building bridges. And the arrangement will allow the state to integrate the bridge replacements with the separate but related project to improve the roadways leading to the bridges.

“It’s more efficient, less expensive, and quicker than it would be dealing with it jointly,” he said. “It became clear in our meetings that this was the only logical way to approach it. You couldn’t have two major projects hoping to link up a little bit.”

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The roadways project includes major changes to the rotaries on either side of the Bourne Bridge, an expansion of Route 6 between the Sagamore Bridge and Exit 2, a new park-and-ride facility for bus commuters, and other work that would extend onto streets in Sandwich.

That work would be paid for by the state and would cost another $400 million or so; the Massachusetts House of Representatives has passed legislation that would allow the state to borrow $350 million, though the Senate has not yet taken up the transportation financing package.