In 1935, the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges were completed and opened to traffic. They were a huge change in access to Cape Cod and the islands, and really changed the ease of access to vacationers and commuters alike. These new bridges replaced the prior drawbridge access to the Cape, allowed larger vessels through the Canal, and certainly made vehicular traffic more dependable.
Back then, gasoline sold for 19 cents per gallon and you could buy a new Ford coupe for $500. America had fallen in love with the automobile and the Cape and Islands became very popular destinations. Steel bridge life expectancy, particularly in a salt air corrosive environment, is typically a 50 year design life span. That time table would have called for these two bridges to be replaced in 1985. Today in 2023, these two bridges are at 176% of their original life expectancy. In human terms, this would equate to the average human being kept alive until age 140! That is going to take a lot of work, parts replacement, and lead to a questionable quality of life, as well as, a likely poor return on investment.
Massachusetts was one of the early states to establish vehicle weight limits, and at the time these bridges were designed, trucks in MA were limited to 28,000 lbs. gross vehicle weight (truck and cargo combined). Today the gross vehicle weight standard is 80,000 lbs. for a tractor trailer. Maximum vehicle width has grown from 8’ to 8’-6”. Typical lane width on both bridges is 10’ meaning that a modern commercial truck has only 9” on either side when driving in the center of a lane. Modern bridges use 20% wider 12’ lanes and typically divide the traffic flow with a center structure to prevent head on collisions, plus provide for breakdown lanes. Our two bridges do not. Speed limits have increased over the years so we are driving faster, wider, heavier vehicles over bridges that were not designed for modern times. We have asked a lot from these bridges and they have delivered. But they have now been declared functionally “obsolete” by the Army Corps of Engineers, who owns and maintains the bridges….and that was in a 2019 study!
The price of new bridges has ballooned from $1.5 billion some years ago to over $4 billion today. As we have been talking, not acting, the price just keeps going up. Who said talk is cheap? We will be faced with several months of lane closures starting March 1, as emergency repairs will be made. This will be a grim reminder of the impacts that even partial closures will have on our economy and our lives. Unlike previous repair periods, The Army Corps has said that work will be done three shifts a day to shorten the period of inconvenience, but keep your eye on the work being done. Past repairs have appeared disappointingly inefficient with little to no work being done on the closed lanes on many days. Please don’t be shy about letting your legislators know the importance of bringing bridge access into the 21st century. We need the safety, the dependability, and the capacity of wide lane divided flow bridges that can handle modern traffic flow and vehicle speeds, width, and weight. It will take a lot of loud voices, because no one wants to face the $4 billion cost.
As these bridges age, there is something else to think about…if one fails before we replace them, how long will it take to bring a replacement on line? Waiting for failure is not a plan…it is an absence of a plan.
If you ever notice the “Evacuation Route” signs leading off Cape, they don’t actually lead off Cape, they lead to Otis Air Force base in Bourne. Planners know there is no capacity for Cape and Islands evacuation over the bridges. In the event of an evacuation, we won’t likely be leaving the Cape, we will more likely be housed in hangars at Otis!
Compared to the spending that government likes to do on some pretty unimportant things, for us, this bridge challenge looms large. Please help sound the alarm. Please speak to your town officials, your state legislators and your federal representatives. We have to face the future and we have to plan for it! As James Brown, the self-proclaimed Godfather of Soul, born in 1933, the year the two bridges began, would famously say “Take me to the Bridge”, so how do we make his call a popular refrain? How do we replace our bridges before they fall? It will take all of our voices.
In 1935, the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges were completed and opened to traffic.
We have asked a lot from these bridges and they have delivered. But they have now been declared functionally “obsolete” by the Army Corps of Engineers, who owns and maintains the bridges….and that was in a 2019 study!