Cape Cod needs third bridge, but who will pay?

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Just before the Bourne Bridge, tucked on the mainland side, is a jarring sign: “Desperate? … Call the Samaritans.”

Public officials might consider adding another sign: “Exasperated? Call the Army Corps of Engineers and MassDOT.”  That call will be made to address the looming transportation crisis now apparent at the Cape Cod Canal.

Constructed between 1933-1935, the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges now carry over 35 million vehicles annually. For 80 years, they have been exposed to the oscillations of nature’s fury, now requiring nearly annual, expensive maintenance. Traffic today is over double what it was over 40 years ago. And in 2011, the Bourne Bridge alone was assaulted with an average of 42,505 vehicles daily, or nearly the same average volume that both bridges combined experienced in 1972.

Traffic merging in Sagamore.

Traffic merging on the Sagamore Bridge.

Last October, dispelling idle rumors of a bridge of dreams, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation published “Project SPAN-Third Crossing of Cape Cod Canal.”  Focusing on safety, accessibility, mobility and connectivity, the study considers two potential configurations to alleviate today’s conditions: a so-called “Sagamore Twin,” to be constructed next to the existing bridge; and “Mid-Canal,” a new structure equidistant from the older spans. Both options involve tolls, a political predicament. And both will invariably involve myriad stakeholders.

This past spring, news accounts — perhaps influenced by the above publication — revealed that state and independent investors, in a public-private partnership, could bear the costs of what some conservatively estimate to be a $320 million project. Remarkably, the Patrick Administration almost committed the state to such an arrangement, with virtually no legislative outreach or oversight.

What is lost in public discussion of bridge proposals, however, is that any such project must necessarily include extensive federal involvement (given permitting and regulatory requirements). In fact, the federal government has owned and operated the canal ever since Woodrow Wilson ordered the Federal Railroad Administration to take it over after World War I. Today, that responsibility falls on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also owns, operates and maintains the bridges.

Is it conceivable, then, that the federal government would assume substantially all the costs of any new bridge?

Such a proposition is not lost on State Rep. Randy Hunt (R-Sandwich), whose district is located at the canal. Hunt, an accountant by profession, applies analytic rigor to consideration of complicated public works projects and is acutely mindful of their enormous costs (and of the ugly political history of such projects in Massachusetts).

Thus far, current planning calls for just one new bridge while keeping the exhausted two links open. Obviously past their prime, those bridges will surely need eventually to be replaced. U.S. taxpayers will solely bear that burden. (Only fair, since the unbearable bridge congestion is not created solely by residents of Massachusetts).

State and federal officials, therefore, should consider a new option, endorsed by Hunt: build two new bridges and replace the existing ones, mostly at federal expense. (MassDOT would pay for changes in access roadways). This would better apportion costs (eliminating tolls), clearly delineate responsibilities and forge a new public-public partnership.

Encouragingly, there is now a new level of collaboration and communication between state and federal agencies, not seen before; what Hunt calls, “sharing the same sheet music.” If true, the legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker should seek a federal dollar commitment too.

But arbitrary deadlines, budgetary limitations, and conflicting local and national priorities will no doubt hinder progress. As the process achingly inches along, as slowly as the traffic, it may take a vigorous political crusade — or catastrophic portent — to jump-start a needed solution.

Contributing columnist James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with the Cape Cod Times.