Ahead of what is expected to be a record tourism season on Cape Cod, the Sagamore Bridge was reduced to one lane in each direction on Monday for what could be weeks of maintenance on the aging canal crossing.
It’s the second time in three years that the bridge’s owner, the US Army Corps of Engineers, has closed lanes on the bridge to take on around-the-clock spring maintenance and repairs. The lane closures will remain in place until contractors complete the work, which includes repairs on steel supports and lighting equipment. The Army Corps has not provided a set date for when that will be, except to say the project will be finished by Memorial Day — typically the launch of tourism season on the Cape.
“Our team has every confidence that this maintenance work will be completed by that holiday weekend,” Bryan Purtell, an Army Corps spokesman, said in a March statement announcing the closures.
Purtell described the maintenance project as “critical to maintaining the structural integrity” of the bridge, which, like the Bourne Bridge on the other end of the Cape Cod Canal, is nearing its 90th birthday. The Bourne Bridge is expected to undergo similar work and closures in the fall, according to Purtell.
The work comes as federal and state officials have said they intend to replace the bridges with two new structures at a cost north of $1 billion. Army Corps research has found that restoring the existing bridges would still cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and require long periods of lane closures and even all-out bridge closures.
Replacement bridges, by contrast, would be built next to the current ones, allowing continued access to the Cape during construction — though the old bridges would likely still require some maintenance work during that period.
Last summer, the Army Corps committed to paying for the bridge replacements, but the state said it would handle most of the design and construction process. The Army Corps has not yet found a funding source, but the Massachusetts Department of Transportation recently pointed to ongoing negotiations for a federal infrastructure bill as one opportunity to fund the project.
“It is MassDOT’s expectation that the federal government will seek funds for the replacement of the Cape Cod bridges in the congressional infrastructure package,” Kristen Pennucci, a department spokeswoman, recently said.
New bridges would be wider, and also feature improved bike and pedestrian infrastructure, though some environmentalists worry that adding a new lane for vehicles entering and exiting the bridges could invite more overall traffic.
The state government, meanwhile is responsible for the roads approaching the bridges, which would need to be redesigned and rebuilt to meet the new structures. Massachusetts lawmakers recently approved $350 million in borrowing for this project as part of a much larger transportation bonding package.
Wendy Northcross, chief executive at the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said the bridges’ increasingly frequent maintenance needs and lane closures demonstrate the need for the replacement project that she has long supported. The latest set of repairs came as a surprise when they were announced in March, she said.
“It’s a pain in the neck, because we’re going into school vacation week next week,” she said. “It just proves the point that the bridges are past their useful life. Now we have a plan, and obviously we needed that plan.”
The Sagamore Bridge faced similar lane closures in the spring of 2018, when the Army Corps took on a number of repairs such as replacing bridge joints and patching damaged pavement. That project was also slated to be complete by Memorial Day, and was actually wrapped up early — three weeks ahead of the holiday.
Even so, Cape residents and visitors faced huge traffic jams to cross the bridge throughout that spring, and officials are warning that similar snarls are likely this spring.
“Motorists planning to use the Sagamore Bridge during this timeframe should be aware that travel delays are likely to occur during the morning and afternoon peak travel periods each day,” Purtell said.
The Army Corps noted that the Bourne Bridge will remain fully open amid the Sagamore lane closures, providing another option to drivers.
The state Transportation Department said it will deploy a temporary traffic signal near the Cape-side entrance to the bridge, which it used during the 2018 work to help manage traffic where vehicles coming from routes 6 and 6A merge. That signal frustrated some motorists, but officials said it ultimately helped traffic pass more efficiently than it would have in a free-for-all.