REPLACEMENT OF THE Sagamore and Bourne bridges has become the highest priority of state transportation leaders and the Massachusetts congressional delegation. The state has signaled an intent to double its commitment, to $700 million from $350 million, to provide a local match for hoped-for federal dollars.
The bridges are a federal asset, built and owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. Replacement ought to be a Corps responsibility, but they didn’t find room in their $8.5 billion budget until the Biden administration put a specific marker within a $50 million capital initiative. The lack of enthusiasm of the Army Corps is apparent on its website: “The Budget also includes a previously unfunded project within the Construction account – Cape Cod Canal Bridges, MA (Navigation).”
The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce has done a brilliant job of advocacy for bridge replacement, and has persuaded state officials to plunge ahead without first trying to maximize their leverage and return on investment.
I’m not observing this from a distance; I’m an interested party. In the 1980s, I acquired a cottage on Cape Cod the old-fashioned way: I married a woman who already owned one. Since then, I have been a regular seasonal user of the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, commuting to and from the Cape most weekends in the summer, and occasionally in the off-season.
I get stuck in traffic jams several times a year. It’s a pain. Those severe jams are avoidable, with planning.
But the occasional traffic jam is not such a pain that it justifies a rush to replace the bridges at whatever cost, especially when we desperately need improvements to infrastructure that the Commonwealth and our cities and towns already own. And,by the way, new bridges won’t eliminate traffic jams.
Cape bridge traffic jams have nothing to do with the congestion that is threatening our competitiveness and pushing Massachusetts into contention with Los Angeles for the country’s most difficult commutes.
The current cost estimate for Cape bridge replacement is $4 billion, with no guarantee of federal participation. That’s Everett Dirksen territory — “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
The 690-page environmental notification form for the bridge replacement project contains some interesting tidbits.
Both bridges are deemed “functionally deficient,” which sounds bad. What it actually means is that the traffic lanes are 10 feet wide instead of 12, the modern standard for interstate highways. So for about 900 feet, the length of 3 football fields, with a 40 mile per hour speed limit, a driver has to be careful to stay in a lane, and not succumb to the temptation to gaze at the beautiful view to either side. This takes concentration, to be sure. The view will remain a temptation with the new wider lanes.
The Bourne is “structurally deficient,” but safe, according to the environmental filing. “Structural” deficiency, as opposed to “functional,” refers to the rusting and weakening of old metal and concrete. Structural deficiency will worsen with time, and when the Bourne is worse than now, there could be weight limitations imposed, likely a limitation on big trucks. This is not imminent, and the trucks could be sent to the Sagamore if things worsen.
The environmental notice explicitly says that the Sagamore is not structurally deficient, presumably because more of its aging parts have been replaced over time.
So, there are no immediate structural safety issues with either bridge. Nonetheless, they are old, and will eventually need replacement, or a substitute corridor.
But why move the Cape Cod bridges now to the front of the state funding priority queue? Where is the urgency?
Cape Cod is but one Senate district out of 40, virtually all of which have serious infrastructure issues. Massachusetts is behind 46 other states in its percentage of structurally deficient bridge area, according to the American Road and Transport Builders Association. The state maintains a list of 200 “Top Crash Locations,” listing 200 unsafe sites around Massachusetts ranked by frequency of accidents; the list does not include the Cape bridges.
Yes, Cape Cod is an island, with a massive influx of seasonal and temporary visitors — tourists and summer residents. That tourism traffic is the backbone of the Cape’s economy.
Massachusetts has had considerable experience with transportation investments producing huge economic growth results: Route 128, the Mass. Turnpike Extension, Logan Airport, the Big Dig and the waterfront and Seaport aftermaths, and the Red Line extensions, for example. It makes sense to spend taxpayer dollars if it will yield significant economic benefits for the state.
That economic growth rationale does not apply to the Cape bridges. Cape Cod is a national treasure, but it can’t host a bounty of economic growth. Environmentally sensitive, with limited amounts of land and water, the Cape can produce beautiful experiences and lifelong memories, but it can’t generate year-round engines of innovation and economic dynamism. The Cape is not Kendall Square or the Seaport.
I am not advocating that the Commonwealth should ignore the bridges. But we would be complete chumps if most of the replacement project isn’t funded with Army Corps of Engineers dollars, and if there’s a federal shortfall for some reason, with tolls on the new bridges.
Before the word “tolls” sends one into cardiac stress, it’s worth thinking about how to structure tolls to maximize fairness. The summer influx people are a main beneficiary of the bridges, and it’s logical to look to those users to bear some of the cost of replacing the bridges.
People like me, the weekend warriors, and the millions of tourists from elsewhere, should pay our fair share of the costs of bridge replacement. If you can afford a second home on the Cape, you can afford to pay a toll.
As for out-of-state drivers, I refer you to the tolls on the Holland Tunnel or the George Washington Bridge — now $17. New York has been eating our lunch on federal funding allocations for decades — and they haven’t hesitated to impose tolls to fund big projects and highway maintenance.
Any toll plan should exempt or deeply discount Cape residents and immediate neighbors. This is important in the same way that spreading the financial burden is necessary. The toll will be high, because some will wind up paying only twice a year, to get on and off for a summer vacation, and my fellow weekend warriors will pay 20 times a year, on average.
Massachusetts has discounted residents of host communities before. Tobin Bridge neighbors in Charlestown and Chelsea have long benefitted from discounted tolls. The same is true for East Boston or South Boston residents who use the Sumner or Ted Williams tunnels and for residents of the North End of Boston who use the Sumner Tunnel. With today’s technology, discounts are easy to implement and monitor.
Decades from now, when you are stuck in traffic on Route 6 or Route 28 behind vehicles from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, there will be some satisfaction in knowing that those drivers (Yankee fans, probably) helped pay for the beautiful bridges that brought them to the Cape.
Jack Corrigan is a lawyer and longtime political activist who served as chief of operations for the governor in the Dukakis administration. He is also a former deputy secretary of transportation.