WASHINGTON — The Senate included $350 million toward the replacement of the two aging Cape Cod bridges in a wide-ranging appropriations bill unveiled on Thursday, a potential step toward the billions of dollars needed to build the new roadways over the Cape Cod Canal.
Even those millions are far from ready for the bank, as a divided Washington is staring down a major fight over government funding this fall.
But the money’s inclusion in the Senate legislation signaled more of an appetite in Washington to help shoulder the estimated $4 billion replacement of the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, the 88-year-old federally owned arching structures that are the only roads on and off the peninsula.
The line item in the Senate’s draft “energy and water development” appropriations bill for the bridges follows a request by President Biden in his budget proposal for $350 million for the project, and is the product of a concerted effort by Massachusetts’ Democratic senators, Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, to get federal money for the needed investment.
“Securing $350 million in the Senate Appropriations bill is a critical win in the decades-long effort to replace the aging Cape Cod Canal bridges,” Warren and Markey said in a statement. “We will continue pushing to ensure this funding is signed into law and appreciate our ongoing partnership with Governor Healey, the Biden Administration and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Murray as we continue to prioritize this federal investment in our infrastructure.”
Having those funds actually arrive in Massachusetts remains a significant uphill climb. The Senate still needs to pass its appropriations bills, as does the House, for the two chambers to begin having conversations with the White House about a deal to fund the government beyond the end of this fiscal year in September.
While Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated a cap on spending earlier this year as part of a deal to raise the debt limit, the GOP-controlled House has vowed to keep funding levels below that level, setting up a heated battle with the Democratic Senate and Biden.
Money for the bridges could prove uncontroversial and make it into a final agreement, if one were to be reached. But the GOP has not hidden its desire to cut anything it views as objectionable as it slashes federal budgets broadly, recently voting in a committee to strip earmarks that were related to LGBTQ community services, including $2 million Representative Ayanna Pressley sought to help finance a housing project for LGBTQ seniors in Hyde Park.
And Washington insiders are unsure if the parties will even reach a government funding bill or if they will simply extend current funding — or even enter a lengthy government shutdown should the two sides reach a stalemate.
Governor Maura Healey in May promised to double the state’s financial commitment to the project up to $700 million. 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.
In a statement, Healey said the inclusion of the $350 million in the Senate bill was “very exciting and welcome news,” and called the project one of her administration’s top priorities.
“We will continue working closely with our local, state and federal partners to see this project through,” she said.
The bridges themselves are an unusual entity. They are currently owned by the federal government but will eventually be turned over to the state once replaced. When they first opened to traffic in 1935, they were intended to stand for just 50 years, and the Army Corps recommended in 2020 that both be replaced.
They’re now 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.
Without replacing or fixing each bridge, officials have said they would 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. Warren also sent letters to a collection of local leaders asking them to detail the impact of the aging bridges on their communities this week as part of an effort to continue to make the case for their replacement.
The work is considered one of the most expensive bridge projects in the country, and questions of how to cover the cost have long dogged the plans. Replacing the bridges would also take years. Representative Bill Keating, a Bourne Democrat, previously told the Globe that one timeline he was given pegged completion of the project in the early 2030s.
But identifying how to actually pay for it has eluded officials. In September and January, the federal government rejected grant applications from the state and the Army Corps seeking a combined $3 billion.
A US Department of Transportation official told state and Army Corps leaders in March that while the project scored well in various ways, the federal agency had identified a $630 million shortfall in the project, according to notes that the state’s highway administrator made of the meeting and the Globe obtained through a public records request.
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 Republican 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.
Now, Healey said she would commit $262 million for the project under a state capital plan that covers through fiscal year 2028, with plans to spend additional funding on the bridge project after that.
In May, the Cambridge Democrat also tapped Will Rasky as her federal affairs director, turning to a Biden administration alum to serve as her administration’s liaison to Congress and the White House. Rasky previously served as the adviser for governmental affairs in the Department of Transportation.