Any final decision about replacing the two bridges across the Cape Cod Canal or building a third is probably years away. But those traffic jams that can paralyze the roads across and around the canal aren't going to disappear.
That's why transportation officials are exploring stopgap projects to alleviate the congestion, a big problem on busy summer weekends and an increasing concern in the spring and fall.
They plan to huddle on Sept. 28 in Buzzards Bay to discuss measures that would be less expensive than building new bridges, such as new bypass roads and entrance ramps.
The Army Corps of Engineers is about halfway through a three-year study to decide whether to replace the 81-year-old Sagamore and Bourne bridges, which require a growing amount of maintenance work. The work, usually done in the offseason, can constrict the four-lane spans and back up traffic, interrupting commutes and deliveries.
"They're old and tired, so we are stuck with dealing with long lines of traffic year-round, not just during the summer," said Marie Oliva, chief executive of the Cape Cod Canal Region Chamber of Commerce.
Cape Cod business leaders had pinned their hopes for alleviating traffic on a third, privately funded toll bridge next to the Sagamore Bridge, but the Baker administration recently shelved that project.
An Army Corps solution could take a decade or more to complete, so state officials are studying interim steps to help ease congestion, much like the Sagamore "flyover," which in 2006 replaced a problematic rotary at the northern end of that bridge. Such projects could help reduce traffic headaches, regardless of whether new bridges are built.
"This doesn't have to wait for the bridges," said state Representative Randy Hunt, a Republican from Sandwich. "There are changes we can make leading up to that."
Hunt cited two proposals atop the list of contenders at the state Department of Transportation: a new entrance ramp that would send drivers directly to Route 25 from the Scenic Highway, which runs alongside the canal on the mainland, and a new entrance ramp to Route 6 on the Cape side of the Sagamore Bridge.
Both improvements would primarily be aimed at reducing congestion for drivers leaving the Cape.
The Route 25 ramp, Hunt said, would probably connect with Nightingale Pond Road, just east of the Bourne Bridge. The goal is to take Scenic Highway traffic directly to Route 25, and then on to interstates 495 and 195, instead of sending cars to the busy rotary just west of the bridge that leads to the current entrance ramp.
The proposed Sagamore ramp, meanwhile, would replace the highway entrance at the foot of that bridge next to the Christmas Tree Shops. The new ramp would connect drivers from Route 6A to Route 6 farther away from the bridge. A bypass road, probably along an existing dirt road that starts across from the Sagamore Inn on Route 6A, would also need to be built. This could make it easier for drivers who use back roads to avoid Route 6 logjams to merge more easily onto the highway, before crossing the bridge.
Hunt is among those who have been skeptical of a privately funded toll bridge, in part because of constituents' concerns.
Instead, he remains hopeful that the Army Corps will decide to replace both bridges with federal funds, and that replacements could be built next to the existing bridges with minimal traffic disruption.
The Army Corps has indicated that it would not pay for additional lanes on any replacement bridges. But new bridges would be built to modern specifications, Hunt said, with new lanes that would be 13 feet wide, instead of 10, and a breakdown lane.
The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, will continue to lobby for a privately funded toll bridge to remain an option, despite the Baker administration's seeming lack of enthusiasm. Its chief executive, Wendy Northcross said business leaders pressed their case with Baker this summer at a fund-raiser held for him on the Cape.
The administration's decision to shelve the toll bridge concept has frustrated chamber leaders. While they would prefer a federally funded, toll-free solution, they wonder when that could happen.
"That would be OK if the Army Corps was showing any signs they were going to do something and do it within a timely fashion," said Olive Chase, owner of the Casual Gourmet catering business in Centerville and the Cape Cod chamber's board chairwoman. "Right now, there's a lot of hoping going on on Beacon Hill. In the meantime, there are people's lives being affected."
The two new entrance ramps under consideration would help, Northcross said, but state and federal agencies shouldn't stop there. "We're saying, nicely, 'We need a bridge and we can't wait until 2030,' " Northcross said. "We're not going to go quiet on this."