An effort to secure federal funding to replace the two Cape Cod bridges took a big step forward last week when the U.S. Senate’s Appropriations Committee voted to give the project a $350 million down payment. 

The federal budget process isn’t over by a long shot, but it’s surely a welcome development for many Cape Cod leaders after the Army Corps of Engineers shot down the state’s first – albeit somewhat lackluster – attempt to get federal money for the project. Gov. Maura Healey herself released a statement calling the development “very exciting and welcome.” 

New spans in place of the Depression-era Bourne and Sagamore bridges have been touted as vital economic development projects for the entire Cape. By adding more and wider lanes – both have 10-foot lanes, not the 12 feet now standard for highways – so the thinking goes, summer traffic jams will be delt a serious blow. 

Ask anyone in Boston who remembers the Big Dig’s promises if they’ve heard that one before. While roadway design has certainly advanced quite far from the 1930s, no one should kid themselves that adding more lanes will be anything like a panacea for the bottlenecks that are the two bridges so long as a commuter occupies literally six or eight times as much space as they might when outside their vehicle. Geometry, as the saying goes, hates cars. 

But what’s to be done? A state study conducted before the pandemic estimated that car traffic across the Bourne Bridge will grow 19 percent between 2014 and 2040, and by 44 percent across the Sagamore Bridge. Not doing anything to increase capacity across the Cape Cod Canal will generate 1.6-mile-long weekday traffic jams even in the off-season, the study said – and that was before Cape housing prices shot up over the last three years.  

Now, local business leaders estimate most of the people they’re interviewing are living off-Cape – a trend that is likely to continue given the slow-as-molasses pace of housing construction on the peninsula and the enduring profitability of renting to vacationers instead of year-round residents. 

It’s truly irresponsible of state officials that discussion of the Cape’s transportation needs appears to be occurring in a vacuum without considering transit. The studies and planning documents that provide the foundation for bridge replacements and other transportation projects across the Cape either neglect transit entirely or treat it as an after-afterthought. This, when a single Cape Flyer summer train service – wildly popular after 10 years – regularly carries hundreds of vacationers across the Cape Cod Canal’s third bridge – a 1933-vintage railroad lift bridge – per trip in the space normally taken up by a few dozen cars. 

Between the known health and climate problems caused by encouraging more car trips and the reality that more cars on the road translates to more traffic, federal officials should mandate the state significantly upgrade the decaying, low-capacity Cape Flyer tracks, expand its service and seriously grow the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority’s capacity to provide a realistic alternative to driving. 

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The Third Cape Bridge We Forget About

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min