In a major shift from her predecessor, Governor Maura Healey this month will begin pursuing federal funds to initially replace just one of the two aging Cape Cod bridges, arguing that seeking aid this year for only the Sagamore Bridge will maximize the state’s chances to cover the larger project’s ballooning price tag.
Healey said her administration remains committed to replacing both the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, the 88-year-old arching structures that straddle the Cape Cod Canal and are the only roads on and off the peninsula that sees a huge influx of visitors each summer.
State officials say they now believe replacing the two bridges will cost $4.5 billion, up from a projected $4 billion last year and roughly $1 billion just a few years ago. They also estimate it could take up to eight years to replace each one, with construction beginning on the Sagamore Bridge in 2028.
In an attempt to turn the long-gestating project into reality, the state is changing its strategy. After whiffing on $3 billion in requests to fund the replacement of both under former governor Charlie Baker, the state and US Army Corps of Engineers — which currently owns and maintains the bridges — will next week begin submitting applications seeking $1.45 billion in federal grants to first replace the Sagamore Bridge, which officials say alone will cost nearly $2.15 billion.
At some point later, the state would then seek federal funding to replace the Bourne Bridge, all while continuing to push ahead on the necessary permitting and design for both.
State officials could not pinpoint when they would seek more funding for the Bourne Bridge, but they stressed construction was always likely to occur in phases. Asking for funding now for two bridges “wasn’t going to work,” said Healey, a first-term Arlington Democrat.
“Last year, we pursued an application that was dead on arrival. We didn’t want to repeat the same practice,” Healey said in an interview. “This will be concrete. It will be a significant step forward. It will put us on a path of getting not one but two bridges done.”
Given the project’s long timeline, there’s inherent risk.
Massachusetts, in working with its all-Democratic federal delegation, is seeking funding at a time when Democrats control both the White House and the Senate, though not the House. If President Biden loses his reelection bid, or the GOP gains a stronger hand in Congress, it’s unclear how they might affect the state’s chances to score the funding it needs in the future — should it even be successful now.
The shift was met with guarded optimism from local Cape leaders, who applauded the administration for pursuing funding even if major questions remain over getting the two new bridges for which they’ve long planned.
“I understand the phased approach to financing and having a more competitive application means having a more realistic application. But not having funds identified specifically for the Bourne Bridge replacement is a concern,” said Paul Niedzwiecki, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “What we want to avoid is any misalignment between the planning and permitting of both bridges, and the financing.”
The project is already a complex one. 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 of cars each year.
The Healey administration now estimates that for the Sagamore Bridge alone, construction on a new bridge would begin in late calendar year 2028 and would last until late 2035 or early 2036. The state had said in applications it submitted last year it could begin construction by 2027.
Even before the latest jump in estimated cost, it was already considered one of the most expensive bridge projects in the country. That means its requests for federal funding would, too, stand among the highest.
Healey has promised to double the state’s financial commitment to the project up to $700 million. State officials hope another $350 million included in a wide-ranging US Senate appropriations bill also survives, though that is no guarantee in a divided Washington staring down a major fight over government funding this fall.
In this round of federal grants, the state plans to seek $372 million between two federal programs, applications for which are due by next week, before applying for nearly $1.08 billion under the federal Bridge Investment Program this fall.
“We think the financing plan is the right one and helps us maximize our chances,” Healey said. “The project has always been about getting both bridges rebuilt and seeing that through.”
Healey’s approach has the backing of members of the state’s federal delegation. The state is trying to fit “the strategy into the money available,” said US Representative William Keating, a Bourne Democrat.
“This is a smart, pragmatic approach to capturing the money,” Keating said in an interview. “The risk is not acting. This was always going to be phased-in over a period of years because it’s such a lengthy project.”
In a joint statement, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, along with Keating, called the Healey administration’s approach an “actionable” one after failed attempts to score funding under Baker, a Republican.
“Massachusetts now has a fighting chance to start replacing the bridges,” the Democrats said.
Federal officials have said previous attempts to score aid for the project failed partly because the state and Army Corps of Engineers didn’t have a fully fleshed-out financing plan. A Department of Transportation official told state officials in March that it had identified a $630 million shortfall in the project, according to meeting notes obtained by The Boston Globe.
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.
Without replacing or fixing each bridge, officials have warned they could 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.
State officials said they plan to replace the Sagamore Bridge first because it carries nearly 17,000 more cars on average each day than the Bourne.
“This is great that we’re moving ahead with an improved application that hopefully answers some of the questions” federal officials had last year, said state Senator Susan Moran, a Falmouth Democrat. “But we really want to make sure we continue the two-bridge [goal].”
MJ Mastrangelo, chair of the Bourne Select Board, said the panel had not yet been formally briefed on the state’s new financing approach. But she said she’s willing to consider it, even if it potentially means extending the timeline for replacing both bridges.
“It prolongs the agony for the Bourne Bridge users,” she said. “But you’ve got to start somewhere.”