WASHINGTON — When President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law last fall, Massachusetts members of Congress said it would finance one of the biggest public works projects in the state: replacement of the two aging bridges over the Cape Cod Canal.
At a nearly $4 billion cost, rebuilding the only two roads on and off one of the nation’s most popular summer destinations would seem an obvious candidate for the infrastructure money, especially since the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation should wield considerable clout with the Biden administration.
But the legislation didn’t earmark money for specific projects, so each one has to qualify on its own in a highly competitive process. And now it’s become clear the replacement of the Bourne and Sagamore bridges is no slam dunk after the project failed to receive any funding in the first round of grants awarded in September by the US Department of Transportation.
The shutout in the first of multiple rounds of funding shows the potential trouble ahead for lawmakers and Biden administration officials, who sold the legislation as a game changer for the nation’s aging infrastructure but now must grapple with which projects make the cut.
While still optimistic, key delegation members are pressing for the Cape project’s proposed start date to be accelerated to increase its chances of winning funding.
“I will not rest until we have two gleaming new bridges connecting the Cape and Islands to the rest of Massachusetts,” said Senator Edward Markey. “We will get this done.”
Markey, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Bill Keating of Bourne, whose district includes the bridges, acknowledge they were disappointed when the project was not among the 26 nationwide that received some of $1.5 billion in grants on Sept. 15. The bridges are owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which had applied for a grant in conjunction with Massachusetts transportation officials.
The news also was disconcerting to business owners on the Cape, said Paul Niedzwiecki, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.
“We really have to replace those bridges, so to see the first opportunity pass by and have the Cape still waiting isn’t the position that we want to be in,” he said.
The bridges opened in 1935 and were intended to last 50 years. Now, more than 30 years after that target, the only road links to the Cape have deteriorated to the point that the Army Corps determined in 2019 that they have become “functionally obsolete” and should be replaced rather than repaired.
Enter the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was designed to help fund just those types of projects, but parses it out among several different programs, each with different priorities and qualifications. There’s fierce competition and the first round the Army Corps and state transportation officials applied for wasn’t the best fit because it is has less money and gives preference to projects that will improve freight delivery and start construction soon.
Warren said that she was frustrated the Cape bridges project won’t begin construction until the 2026 fiscal year and that the timetable hasn’t been moved up. A spokesman for the Army Corps did not respond to a request on the start date.
“They can’t talk about bridge replacement at a leisurely pace,” she said. “That fails to reflect the urgency of getting the job done and the likelihood it will meet the qualifications of the federal funding that’s available.”
Markey said he has met with Army Corps officials and also made it clear the timeline needs to be accelerated. And on Monday, he said Michael Connor, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, called to tell him that the Army has allocated $2 million of its own money for preconstruction engineering and design for the bridges.
“That money is minimal, but it sends a very clear signal the Corps is committed to replacing the bridges,” Markey said, noting it is the Army Corps’ first commitment of money to the project.
State officials estimate the project will cost around $4 billion, which includes improvements to the roads adjoining the bridges. In May, the Army Corps and Massachusetts Department of Transportation applied to two separate programs for a total of $1.113 billion in grants, the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America and the National Infrastructure Project Assistance programs.
That latter is known as the Mega program because it is designed for large, complex projects. Markey said he is optimistic the Cape bridges will receive some of that money when grants are announced in the coming weeks.
“ ‘Mega’ is not an acronym for something. It just means mega, huge, and that’s where the Cape Cod bridges fit perfectly,” he said. The project also is eligible for funding under a new $12.5 billion Bridge Investment Program created by the infrastructure law. And the law sends money directly to states to repair and replace bridges. Massachusetts is receiving $1.1 billion, and could use some of that for the Cape project.
Bryan Purtell, a spokesperson for the Army Corps New England district, said officials were disappointed not to receive the first grant, but “continue to look for other grant opportunities to further this project.” He declined to comment on the project timetable.
MassDOT has backed the Army Corps grant applications for the bridge funding and Governor Charlie Baker’s administration “will continue to advocate for the federal government to prioritize replacing these structures,” said agency spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard.
State officials and the Massachusetts congressional delegation have made replacing the Cape Cod bridges their top infrastructure priority, Keating said. Biden also understands the importance, Keating said after he spoke with him during the president’s visit to Logan Airport last month to tout the infrastructure law.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to get going on the bridges and this Mega fund is a great fit for it,” Keating recalled. “He said, ‘Cape Cod bridges . . . I got it, I got it.’ ”
But the money will come in chunks from different programs at different times, Keating said.
“I don’t want people to be overly concerned,” Keating said. “At the end of the day the bridges are going to be built, but this is the process.”
Niedzwiecki also said he was hopeful the project will get federal money in future rounds of grants because of the importance of Cape travel and tourism to the state.
Warren said she and her colleagues in Congress pushed to pass the large infrastructure bill. But she put the onus on state and federal officials in charge of the project to take advantage of that, she said.
“We fought to make sure the money is there,” Warren said. “The tree has borne fruit, but MassDOT and Army Corps need to pick that fruit.”
Shannon Coan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.