Sagamore Bridge work frays tempers, hurts shops
Repairs to the aging Sagamore Bridge during the spring have slowed traffic leaving Cape Cod to a crawl most nights and backed it up for miles on Sundays, culminating in a Mother's Day morass when the stalled line of cars stretched past multiple exits on Route 6 and triggered all-day gridlock on nearby Route 6A.
"Whoever conceived of this plan should be fired,'' said Anne Kilguss, a Boston social worker and psychotherapist with a second home in Orleans. "If I were a tourist and I was caught up in that thing on Sunday, I would never go to the Cape again.''
Kerry Barrett, co-owner of a seasonal ice cream shop on the Cape a mile from the bridge, said business has fallen by more than 50 percent on Sundays, normally the busiest day, since Twin Acres Ice Cream Shoppe reopened April 1, with this past Sunday by far the worst.
"We're a seasonal small business; we cannot make this up,'' said Barrett, who watched bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 6A obstruct the entrance of Twin Acres and nearby businesses for much of the day.
Officials said the work, to repair and replace many steel elements, is necessary to extend the life of the nearly 80-year-old Sagamore Bridge and will wind down before May 24, leaving one more trying week and painful weekend before the span is freed from obstruction in time for Memorial Day and peak tourist season.
They also said they have taken measures to warn motorists of delays and shoehorn the disruptive work, which cannot be performed in winter, into the spring.
"Everyone would love us not to do the work so we don't have the backups, but recognizing that we have to do the work, we're trying to pick the best time of year,'' said Larry Davis, canal manager for the US Army Corps of Engineers, charged not just with maintaining the canal, but also the three 1930s bridges that connect the Cape and mainland, the Sagamore and Bourne for cars, plus a freight railroad span.
Two of the four lanes on the Sagamore closed in March to accommodate work that initially was being done in a single 12-hour shift a day. The bridge had to remain closed around the clock because it was too cumbersome to remove heavy equipment, including lifts that can raise workers 100 feet above the deck. Work crews removed that equipment only when the bridge was fully open Easter and Patriot's Day weekends.
The Army Corps's contractor, Aetna Bridge Co. of Rhode Island, increased to two 10-hour shifts daily halfway through the project to meet the late-May deadline and to address the perception that work was not being done efficiently, with irate motorists trickling past idle equipment in the closed lanes.
Still, wind speeds above 25 miles an hour force workers to descend, given the danger of working in the open air 200 feet or more above the water.
"A lot of the criticism is, 'I drove on the bridge on such a nice day and no one's working,' '' Davis said. "Well, at your house it's a nice day and the wind's only blowing 10 miles per hour, but when you get up to the elevated height, the wind's blowing a lot more.''
The closures have meant more than just lost leisure time and business transactions. Michael Last of Medford said several guests arrived late to a wedding he attended in Brewster Saturday and had to change hastily in the bathroom. He and his wife had missed the worst of the traffic on the way in, but their return drive from Brewster to the Sagamore Bridge Sunday took about 2 1/2 hours, a trip that normally takes 45 minutes.
The Army Corps faced a backlash in 2009 after a resurfacing project on the Sagamore deck caused severe backups, prompting the convening of a federal, state, and local task force to work with business and civic groups and coordinate project timing and traffic management.
They agreed that the weeks immediately after Labor Day were of greater tourism value than the weeks before Memorial Day in scheduling necessary but unpopular bridge work, including resurfacing of the sibling Bourne Bridge in 2010 and related steel work on that bridge late last fall.
Bourne Town Administrator Thomas Guerino said the Army Corps and the state - which had four nearby highway projects underway this spring - are "doing everything they possibly can to alleviate the problem during the peak season.'' And federal, state, and local government have used message boards, social media, and other methods to warn drivers of delays.
The state, which is ending its own Route 6 projects by Memorial Day, had removed workers and equipment for Mother's Day. But delays were worse than ever because of heavy traffic volumes and rubbernecking at the bridge, Davis said, with motorists slowing not just for the work zone but for a nuclear-power protest at the base of the Sagamore.
Former state representative Thomas S. Cahir, chairman of the task force, said the state and federal government could do more to improve traffic flow off the Cape. Exit 1 - hard against the bridge's base, near the windmill-adorned landmark of the Christmas Tree Shops - is too close to the Sagamore, Cahir said, calling for it to be moved long-term and to be shut down for Sunday peak hours in the short term.
Drivers who have tried to skirt Route 6 until the last possible moment, clogging Route 6A, have worsened delays while trying to merge onto Route 6 just as that highway shrinks to one lane outbound.
"I really think that's the reason for the most frustration,'' said Cahir, now administrator of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority. But long-term traffic improvements can take decades, as was the case with replacement of the Sagamore rotary with a $60 million flyover in 2006, which Cahir backed in the Legislature.
Memories of the rotary still cause motorists to shudder and use it as a reference.
How bad has traffic been this spring? "Far worse than anything when the rotary was there,'' said Kilguss, the Boston and Orleans resident.