After Massachusetts struck out on billions of dollars in federal grants to replace the two aging Cape Cod bridges, Governor Maura Healey is promising to double the state’s financial commitment to the project — up to $700 million — as the state tries to lure the federal money needed to realize the long-gestating plans.
Healey’s pledge marks a major escalation in the state’s willingness to devote its own cash to the estimated $4 billion replacement of the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, the 88-year-old arching structures that traverse the Cape Cod Canal and are the only roads on and off the peninsula.
The state had previously committed $350 million specifically for the project. Healey aides told the Globe her administration intends to allocate up to $350 million more from money the state is authorized to borrow for an array of infrastructure and transportation projects.
It remains to be seen whether the beefed-up commitment will help secure more federal funding. But federal transportation officials have said that previous attempts to score federal aid for the project failed partly because the state and US Army Corps of Engineers — which currently owns and maintains the bridges — didn’t have a fully fleshed-out financing plan.
That reality added to what’s already a particularly knotty undertaking: The bridges are currently owned by the federal government but will eventually be turned over to the state once replaced. They’re considered functionally obsolete, and officials have said pursuing long, costly fixes in lieu of replacement could be catastrophic to crossings that carry tens of millions a car each year.
The work is considered one of the most expensive bridge projects in the country, and questions of how to cover the cost have long hung over the plans. In September and January, federal officials rejected federal grant applications from the state and the Army Corps seeking a combined $3 billion.
That quickly sparked finger-pointing from members of the federal delegation. Senator Elizabeth Warren, in a January television appearance, said it’s incumbent on the state to “pick the fruit” — i.e. the available federal money — that Congress helped plant. Then, days later, Warren, Senator Edward J. Markey, and Representative Bill Keating sent a letter to the Army Corps, charging that it was due to make a “significant down payment” on the project.
Healey herself has publicly prodded federal officials, saying in a radio appearance last month that the Biden administration “needs to step up and do much more” to make replacing the bridges a reality.
But it was the state and Army Corps’ own financing plans that played heavily in their inability to capture major funding to date.
A US Department of Transportation official told state and Army Corps leaders in a March 9 meeting that while the project scored well in various ways, the federal agency had identified a $630 million shortfall in the project, and that it wants a “full financial plan showing the funding will be available when needed,” according to notes Jonathan Gulliver, the state’s highway administrator, made of the meeting. The Globe obtained them through a public records request.
It’s “not uncommon” for the US Department of Transportation to negotiate with applicants, either by cutting the cost of the project or “increasing the applicant’s share of the funding,” according to Gulliver’s notes.
Keating, a Bourne Democrat, said in seeking the competitive grants, the state and Army Corps had to show they could put up significant matching funds. The absence of any immediately hurt their applications.
“They were noncompetitive at the starting point,” he said.
The bridges, which first opened to traffic in 1935, were intended to stand for just 50 years, and the Army Corps recommended in 2020 that both be replaced.
“We continue to work together [with the state] to advance our design, permitting, and funding plan as we chart a new path forward to benefit the Cape Cod bridges,” said Scott Acone, chief of the programs and project management division for the Army Corps’ New England District.
Replacing the bridges would also take years. Keating, in an interview, said one timeline he was given pegged completion of the project in the early 2030s.
Time is of the essence. Officials have said without replacing or fixing each bridge, they’ll be forced to permanently close a lane in each direction by 2032 on the Bourne Bridge and 2036 on the Sagamore Bridge. Should they simply fix things as they fail, officials warned they would likely have to begin limiting the size of trucks allowed on either bridge in 2026 and 2030, respectively.
“Not to say there isn’t a potential for lane closure in 2026/2030,” Craig Martin, a senior project manager in the Army Corps’ New England District, wrote in an e-mail to state officials last June.
State lawmakers in 2021 passed a borrowing bill that specifically committed $350 million to the project. But during last year’s application process, MassDOT officials — then under Governor Charlie Baker’s administration — gave no indication they had more to offer after federal transportation officials pressed the state on whether they had additional funding plans.
“Not at this time,” MassDOT officials replied, according to an e-mail the Globe obtained through a public records request.
Healey is beginning to lay the groundwork for when the state would spend its share of the cash. She intends to include $263 million for the project in an upcoming Capital Investment Plan that covers through fiscal year 2028, with plans to spend additional funding on the bridge project after that, Healey aides said.
“Governor Healey and Lieutenant Governor Driscoll have made this project a top priority of our administration,” Quentin Palfrey, Healey’s newly named director of federal funds and infrastructure, said in a statement. “We are committed to forging a path forward to new and improved bridge infrastructure.”
Other details beyond funding remain hazy. Bryan Cordeiro, MassDOT’s project manager for the bridges, said during a March forum that construction could start a “little more than a year” after September 2025, if the state could secure funding by then.
In response to Globe questions, however, Healey’s office did not specify what federal grants the state could pursue next. In their March meeting, federal officials indicated that the so-called Infrastructure for Rebuilding America and Mega Program grants the state had sought unsuccessfully would not be large enough to fund a project as big as replacing the bridges, given federal officials’ interest in spreading that money to a wide range of projects, according to Gulliver’s notes.
Healey’s office also did not commit to a schedule or updated cost for the project, saying it expects the Federal Highway Administration to review the project and provide state officials with a “clearer picture.”
The FHA review, Palfrey said, will inform the state’s next steps, “as well as what resources can be utilized to ensure that the project moves forward.”
Proponents do, however, have hope. The project won a $1.6 million federal planning grant in January, and in March, President Biden included $350 million for the project in his budget proposal — seen by some as an important symbolic gesture, even though the plan was effectively dead on arrival in a Republican-controlled House.
“When it comes to money, it’s all hands on deck. Let’s grab whatever we can,” Keating said. “This is a long-term project and a highly expensive one. I don’t think there’s anything like it in the country.”
Mitch Landrieu, a senior Biden adviser and White House infrastructure coordinator, told reporters Monday that while grant decisions are ultimately up to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, he feels “very good about Massachusetts’ position right now” after discussions with Healey and members of the state’s federal delegation.
“We continue to work with them very, very closely to get them positioned so that they can get a ‘yes’ on future rounds of funding,” Landrieu said.
Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff contributed to this report.