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Cape bridge repairs highlight how the housing crunch has made commutes worse

The share of workers commuting from the mainland has roughly doubled in six years as housing costs push people farther from their jobs

Traffic was heavy Wednesday afternoon on the Sagamore Bridge. The share of Cape Cod workers commuting from the mainland has roughly doubled in six years as housing costs push people further from their jobs.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Jeffery Sylvia was already spending a lot of time in his car, commuting 75 minutes from Dartmouth to Harwich. But when repairs closed one lane of the Sagamore Bridge last month, Sylvia, the assistant vice principal at Monomoy High School, joined a long line of commuters backed up for hours trying to get onto the Cape for work.

“It was absolutely brutal,” said Sylvia. “It was not a fun month and a half.”

Sylvia was stuck in the early morning hours alongside landscapers, contractors, educators, health care workers, fire and police staff, and delivery truck drivers fighting to get to the Cape — part of a growing workforce opting to live in more-affordable communities on the mainland side of the bridges.

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Indeed, in 2017, the Cape imported about 25 percent of its workforce. Now that number is close to 50 percent, said Paul Niedzwiecki, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.

Last month, MassDOT estimated that four times as many cars crossed the Sagamore Bridge between 5 and 11 a.m. heading to Cape Cod as leaving it. On the Bourne Bridge, the ratio of Cape-bound morning traffic was 3 to 1, with the highest proportion coming from Plymouth County.

The Sagamore repairs were done about two weeks earlier than anticipated, but similar repairs will be repeated this fall on the Bourne, and have taken place several times in recent years.

The Sagamore Bridge seen in a car's side mirror.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The bridge repair work is highlighting the problem, creating long lines of rush-hour traffic, but the issues run far deeper, said Senator Julian Cyr, who represents the Cape and Islands, pointing to the region’s complex labor market and its long-running housing shortage.

“I think this is a huge economic problem regardless of the issues with the bridges,” said Cyr. “The fact that we, on a peninsula, cannot support a workforce that lives in our communities raises a whole host of concerns and challenges. And I think the bridge is making all that more difficult.”

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The Cape needs thousands of housing units to support a year-round community and economy, Cyr said. That would require towns to address infrastructure, such as waste water, and allow for denser development.

“The scale of the problem, the scale of the challenge is tremendous,” said Cyr.

Meanwhile, the bridges are nearing 100 years old, so maintenance is essential. Cyr said the Bourne and Sagamore will each need another significant lane closure by 2025 to keep them operable if a replacement project doesn’t begin.

“The idea of getting to a point where there’s a major overhaul that requires a bridge closure — that’s economic Armageddon around here,” said Robert Talerman, co-president of Cape Cod 5 bank.

A historic marker on the Bourne Bridge, which is over 100 years old.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Talerman and his staff were astounded at how bad the traffic was during the lane closures. “You would have thought there’d be a public outcry,” he said.

All of it together is changing the community on the Cape, said Alisa Magnotta, CEO of the Housing Assistance Corporation of Cape Cod. She said it’s impossible for someone making under $100,000 a year to live on the Cape, which is hollowing out the middle of the workforce.

“You start eating at yourself as a community — stealing [workers] from each other and trying to salvage the good ones you have,” Magnotta said. “It’s not a good business model.”

And in turn, the housing shortage endangers the tourism that powers so much of the Cape’s economy. Workers and tourists will sit in traffic side by side this summer, said Magnotta, and when visitors arrive, they will deal with long lines at restaurants, activities, and grocery stores because there isn’t a workforce to staff them.

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On behalf of the Housing Assistance Corporation, the Concord Group published a housing report in October 2022 that found that from 2010 to 2020, Cape Cod’s economy grew by just 2 percent, compared to the national GDP growth of 11 percent in the same period.

“At some point, you become a dying society or just a summer community,” Magnotta said. “That’s not really acceptable for those of us who have raised our families here, grew up here, and live here.”

And it’s forcing people away, like Natasha Coombs, a patient care technician at Falmouth Hospital.

Natasha Coombs, a patient care technician at Falmouth Hospital, wanted to stay in her Cape Cod community but ultimately crossed the Bourne Bridge to Wareham, where she bought a house she could afford.Matthew J Lee

Coombs began coming from Jamaica to work seasonally on the Cape in 2001 and moved to East Falmouth full time with her three daughters in 2006.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the owner of the house she was renting asked her to move out. Coombs decided to buy because the rents were so high. But there were few homes for sale and the median price was nearly $700,000. Coombs wanted to stay in her community but ultimately crossed the Bourne to Wareham, where she bought a house that needed a lot of work but at least she could afford.

“I believe I looked at more than 24 houses,” said Coombs. “The prices were horrendous.”

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After a long shift at work, Coombs wished she lived up the street in the community she knows well. It takes her between 35 minutes to an hour to reach home, depending on traffic. One day, she plans to return.

“All we can do is hope,” said Coombs.

As for Sylvia, his commute got so bad during construction that he is not sure it is sustainable long term. Returning home, he sometimes got caught in an extra two hours of traffic, missing out on family time. He has little choice but to “grin and bear” the commute for now. But he keeps looking for housing closer to work.

“I’m a one-income house,” Sylvia said. “It’s not easy.”

A fisherman casting his line in the Cape Cod Canal with the Bourne Bridge in the background. Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff