What’s the future for the Cape Cod bridges?
Is Cape Cod about to get its own Big Dig?
As federal officials move closer to a final decision on whether to replace the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, the state is considering a parallel construction project to redo much of the road network on either side of the two bridges.
Combined, the two projects could create a massive and lengthy disruption getting on, off, and across Cape Cod, but also promise to one day reduce the protracted backups that have become a rite of summer in that part of the state.
“I’ve heard for the last 30 years that we’re working on it,” said Tony Guthrie, a Weymouth resident who commutes over the bridges every day to his job as a real estate agent on the Cape. “It would be disruptive. It would be very disruptive. But at some point, we have to bite the bullet and make it right. I remember the Big Dig and all the disruptions, but now that area is thriving.”
Built to last a half-century, the two Cape bridges are now 83 years old and increasingly in need of maintenance that creates major traffic backups during the offseason, when Cape regulars expect to have the roads to themselves.
“We saw backups during spring construction activity that were as bad or worse as it gets in the summer,” said Steven Tupper, transportation director for the Cape Cod Commission, a regional planning agency. As the only vehicle access on and off the Cape, the bridges “are not suitable to the region in terms of maintaining the economic activity, the tourism we like to see, and the emergency access,” Tupper said.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been studying replacement of the bridges for several years, and plans public meetings in the coming months to air options. At this point, the Army Corps could still decide to keep the old bridges and rehabilitate them, or go for new crossings altogether. One idea floated several years ago, to add a third bridge over the canal, was previously dismissed.
Spokesman Timothy Dugan declined to say when the Army Corps would finalize its plan.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Transportation Department is developing its own construction plan that assumes the Army Corps will build new bridges over the canal that will have two lanes in each direction, and an additional lane at each end to facilitate merging. The early ideas were contained in a draft proposal over the summer.
On the Sagamore side, the state may add a third lane on the eastbound side of Route 6 between the Sagamore Bridge and Exit 2 in Sandwich. And Exit 1C at the base of the bridge would be relocated further inland from the canal to decrease bottlenecks as outgoing traffic approaches the bridge.
There would not be significant changes to the roads on the mainland side of the Sagamore, where a decade ago the state replaced a rotary with a flyover that brought Route 3 traffic directly onto the bridge.
At the Bourne Bridge, the rotaries on either side of the canal would receive major makeovers. On the Cape side, the Bourne rotary would be replaced by a direct connection between the bridge and Route 28, with new ramps for local traffic and smoothing of the connections among local roads around the bridge. Traffic consultants hired by the state have said this change would reduce congestion considerably both during the summer and the offseason.
Meanwhile, on the mainland side of the bridge, the state could separate some Cape-bound traffic from local drivers by building new intersections leading to the highway and the bridge near the large Belmont Circle rotary. The rotary would be replaced by a smaller one that does not directly connect to highway ramps.
Advocates on the Cape say it’s time to upgrade the infrastructure that millions of tourists traverse each year, and thousands of residents rely on daily. Beleaguered locals say tourist season has started encroaching into spring and fall, possibly driven by more empty nesters crossing the canal during the school year.
“You used to think, Labor Day, please come fast,” said Cassandra Vickery, a Bourne resident who sometimes drives an hour to see her grandchildren just on the other side of the bridge. “Now it doesn’t make much of a difference.”
If both move forward, the road and bridge projects would likely combine for $1 billion — or more — in federal and state construction costs, and take years to complete. Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, suggested the new bridges should be built alongside the existing structures, allowing traffic to continue under current conditions during construction. But the roadwork around the bridges would probably create unavoidable disruptions, she said.
While the proposed roadway ideas are preliminary, the recommendations indicate that officials are preparing to make big changes. Still, it’s unclear when the final configurations will be ironed out for either the roads or the bridges.
The state and federal governments this summer signed an agreement promising to cooperate on the two projects. But Massachusetts is largely at the whim of the Army Corps, which still has at least months of environmental review to conduct before deciding. The state, meanwhile, says the Army Corps’ bridge study is “critical” to making any final decisions.
“They’re not our assets, so we don’t have control over their future, but they are very important obviously to the Cape and to the Commonwealth as a whole,” state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said. “Our goal is to coordinate it as much as we can coordinate it.”
Already, though, some Massachusetts political leaders have lobbied the Army Corps to make a decision on the bridges soon, including Senator Edward Markey. He and other Massachusetts lawmakers filed legislation this year to create a funding source for bridge projects such as those on the Cape.
“From my perspective, the time has come to replace these bridges with new, modern bridges that can accommodate current and future traffic demands,” Markey said. “It needs to be and will be a state, local, and federal project. And we will need all levels involved in order to implement a plan.”
But even some residents who want something done to address the rotary and highway traffic are skeptical that new infrastructure will work. Shirley Parkhurst of Bourne said she’s worried no amount of work will make Cape traffic bearable.
“There’s just too many cars down here in the summer,” she said.