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Summers in Massachusetts have long been marked by traffic jams to Cape Cod.
Summers in Massachusetts have long been marked by traffic jams to Cape Cod.globe staff/file 1972

It’s only a few dozen days every year that the Sagamore bridge that carries Route 3 to Cape Cod chokes with congestion. But those ordeals are bad enough that tourists and Cape natives alike clearly need better options. The fairly new Sagamore flyover, alas, hasn’t solved the annual summer gridlock.

That’s where the proposal for a new, privately funded bridge parallel to the existing span comes in. The idea, first floated by the Patrick administration, has now been embraced by Governor Baker; MassDOT has commissioned a traffic study to assess the impact of a third bridge, bringing it a step closer to reality.

That approach recognizes a key reality: The state has higher priorities than spending its scarce transportation dollars expanding a bridge that’s perfectly suitable most of the time. After all, there are bridges and roads in Massachusetts that have trouble meeting their demands 365 days a year, a backlog of repairs estimated at $14.4 billion. It’s appropriate that the Baker administration is seeking out an alternative funding source for lesser priorities like a third Cape bridge.

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Under the private bridge plan, a commercial entity would build the new span parallel to the existing bridge, and then recoup its costs through tolls. Open-road tolling technology has eliminated the need for tollbooths, meaning cars wouldn’t even have to slow down to cross. The new bridge would be one-way, and the existing bridge would be converted to one-way travel in the other direction. Drivers would still be able to cross the Bourne bridge for free.

The biggest unanswered question is how the new bridge would affect Cape residents, who’d get more options but would lose the ability to cross the Sagamore bridge for free. If the pricing structure for tolls gave discounts to locals, and included “surge” pricing that raised rates at peak tourist times, it might help sell the idea. Cape residents are already paying a price in frustration and wasted time, and if the tolls are modest, they might warm to the trade-off.

Still, a new bridge over the canal is likely to be only an incomplete solution. Building new roads often just induces more traffic, rather than spreading out the existing load. So if possible, any deal should earmark at least a portion of tolls to upgrading the Cape Flyer train service, which runs only once a day on weekends over the summer; if officials could slash 10 or 20 minutes off the travel time, it might be able to absorb more car traffic.

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The summer traffic to the Cape has grown bad enough that some local businesses worry the agonizing trip just to get to the beaches is limiting the area’s allure for tourists. A new bridge, paired with more robust non-automobile alternatives, should help restore some of the Cape’s idyllic luster.

A look at the traffic to the Cape over Memorial Day weekend: