BOURNE, MA (AP) For decades, there’s been a summertime ritual for vacationers heading to Cape Cod: cars by the thousands waiting to wade through the Sagamore Rotary.
Motorists never seem to know what to do once they reach the rotary, where six roads feed into its hub and spit out the cars in fits and starts toward the Sagamore Bridge — the main link between the Cape and the mainland.
“Like every year, traffic will come to a standstill. You see people getting out and walking around, waving, talking to each other,” Bourne Selectman Mark Tirrell said. “We just know to sit at home and not go anywhere.”
Now, as the state plans to replace the rotary with a straight shot to the Sagamore Bridge, planners and activists wonder whether the $35-million project will really eliminate traffic jams and retain the Cape’s unique charm.
Construction could begin on the project as early as next spring to extend Route 3 directly to the bridge, with an off-ramp for local traffic.
State highway officials say the elimination of the rotary — which forces vehicles to slow down considerably and yield to traffic — will slash travel times, reduce exhaust fumes from idling cars and improve safety by removing dangerous merges.
“It’s a quality of life issue for anyone who travels to the Cape and lives there,” said Jon Carlisle, spokesman for Transportation Secretary Dan Grabauskas. “The current capacity of the roadway is underutilized by this one choke point.”
A state study found that on a typical summer Saturday afternoon, Cape-bound motorists on Route 3 would be able to cross the bridge and get on Route 6 South in six minutes during peak times — 21 minutes faster than now. For people coming from the west on Route 6A, also known as the Scenic Highway, travel time would drop from 30 minutes to 23 minutes.
There is a potential downside, however. The rotary now keeps traffic from barreling toward the Sagamore Bridge, a 1935 edifice with narrow 10-foot lanes and no divider. Even if the problem of a rotary in a high-traffic area is eliminated, travelers would still be left with an antiquated bridge.
“Right now, the existing rotary slows traffic down as it approaches the bridge,” said Margo Fenn, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, a regional planning agency. “If we’re having high-speed vehicles travel onto this bridge, there’s a great potential for head-on collisions.”
Offered Robert Parady, a Bourne attorney and former town selectman who now chairs the Regional Transit Authority: “The substandard bridge, that’s an impediment to steady flow of traffic, no matter what you build on either side.”
And some locals said the changes could actually increase travel times from one end of Bourne to another.
The number of stoplights between Sagamore and Buzzards Bay — two of Bourne’s villages — would increase from two to six, said Richard Musiol, a member of the influential local Sorenti family. The family could lose four houses and some of its land around the rotary to make way for project construction.
“For locals who travel those roads back and forth frequently, that’s a huge deal,” Musiol said. “We’ll be trapped in our own community.”
He said more than 1,000 locals have signed a petition in protest.
State Environmental Affairs Secretary Ellen Roy Herzfelder has signed off on a draft environmental impact study, but asked that the final report, expected later this fall, address concerns raised by the Cape Cod Commission about safety and traffic data accuracy.
The Cape Cod Metropolitan Planning Organization voted to conditionally include the project in its annual transportation plan recently, pending the final report. The approval unlocks federal funding which will pay 80 percent of the $35-million price tag, officials said.
Still, traffic isn’t the only concern being raised about reconfiguring the roadway. Some environmental groups worry that easing traffic will mean even more people crowding the Cape, where the population swells to more than 500,000 in the summer — two and a half times its year-round population. The new roadway could cause an economic explosion in the fastest growing part of the state, they said.
“When you talk of Cape Cod, its draw is its natural beauty, and it’s fragile — the beautiful beaches, ponds, lovely landscapes,” said Bennett Heart, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. “There are already issues with water quality and air quality with the cars and there’s a lot of development, commercial and residential.”
State transportation officials don’t believe the changes would lead to more visitors.
“The Cape is not a pass-through, it’s a dead end,” said Carlisle. “We’re not adding capacity to the roadway, we’re just allowing existing capacity to travel in a more safe and quick fashion.”
Tirrell, the Bourne selectman, thinks the plan will eventually do the town good.
“There will be the initial ’I told you so,’ when there are still traffic backups,” he said, “but in the end, the folks will agree that it is an improved highway situation for all of us.”