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New canal bridges just became more likely. Here’s why

Cars drive across the Sagamore Bridge in October 2019.
Eve Zuckoff
Cars drive across the Sagamore Bridge in October 2019.

As the Bourne and Sagamore bridges age, the battle to fund replacements has proven to be a challenge. Just this week, the project inched closer to "shovels in the ground" when officials revealed the preferred location for the new bridges. But the question remains: how close — or far— are we to funding that effort?

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Patrick Flanary: So, Eve, this funding is expected to come from the federal government. Remind us, if you would, what the price tag is for a project of this scale and why the feds are having to pay for it.

Eve Zuckoff: Right. Well, if you had asked me just a few years ago that question, I would have told you that this is going to be a $1-to-$2 billion project. But thanks to inflation, it's now looking more like a $4 billion project. And who's going to pay? That big question was decided in July 2020. The feds and the state agreed that the feds would retain ownership and management of the bridges while the existing ones are removed and successor spans are built. And then control and responsibility is going to be transferred to the state once the replacement project is complete.

Patrick Flanary: So here's the frustrating part: Earlier this month, we heard that this funding for the bridges was denied a second time by the federal government. So I understand you asked some leaders around the Cape if they felt discouraged by this denial. What did they share with you?

Eve Zuckoff: Right. So I talked to members of the Canal Bridges Task Force, which is made up of three major players: the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, the Cape Cod Commission and the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. They often represent the economic, regulatory and environmental issues, respectively, on the Cape. All three were remarkably similar in their answers. They said they're not worried that we didn't get these last two rounds of funding, or at least they're not worried yet. Here's how Kristy Senatori from the Cape Cod Commission put it:

Kristy Senatori: "The process to design and fund such a major infrastructure project really needs to be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. It's easy to be discouraged any time a grant award isn't successful, but the funding picture really needs to be considered over a longer time horizon."

Patrick Flanary: Okay, so what do people here in the region think should happen to secure that money?

Eve Zuckoff: Well, they said that more of the design and the planning work really needs to be done. And the good news is that this week we got a step closer. Engineers working on the bridge project announced the location for where the two new bridges should go. So to explain, if you're looking at a flat map of the Cape, the new Bourne and Sagamore Bridges would be built on the "inboard" side of each existing bridge, so they'd be a little closer together and a little farther from Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay. And that is exactly the kind of decision that makes us more shovel ready, according to the head of the Cape's Chamber of Commerce, Paul Niedzwiecki.

Paul Niedzwiecki: "If we're trying to read the tea leaves a little bit, it seems to me like what the federal government saying is it's an important project, it's a good project, but we need it to get a little bit further down the planning path. And we have these other big federal projects that we've already invested in that are just more ready to go."

Eve Zuckoff: So this latest announcement about specific locations for the new bridges helps reveal which properties could be impacted. It paves the way for a proper environmental review, which then allows the permitting process to begin. I mean, these are the kinds of things that create a more competitive grant application. They get us closer to that money.

Patrick Flanary: Okay. But after these two denials, at what point will these community leaders begin to worry if we still don't have the money in the pipeline?

Eve Zuckoff: Well, the way that people have answered that question for me is by doing kind of a reverse math equation. These bridges are approaching 100 years old, so they're just hanging on. And it's going to take 5-to-7 years of construction to build new ones. So all of that makes the need to get funding really urgent to someone like Paul Niedzwiecki.

Paul Niedzwiecki: "If we don't get federal funding or some way to move forward the bridge replacement project within the next five years, the Army Corps is going to have to completely shut down one of those bridges for a period of at least six months in order to redo the deck and try to firm it up."

Eve Zuckoff: And, he said, it's not going to be substantially less expensive than building new bridges. So the sooner we get funding -- really the next year is the kind of timeline that it's got to be on -- the better.

Patrick Flanary: The waiting is the hardest part. That is Eve Zuckoff. And this conversation is part of a continuing series that we're calling Building Bridges. We'll have more in the coming weeks, of course. Eve, as always, thanks.

Eve Zuckoff: Thanks, Patrick.

Patrick Flanary: The Army Corps of Engineers will be hosting another public meeting tonight, at 6 p.m.to discuss the bridge locations and other details.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.