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New Cape Cod canal bridges may not mean better public transit — should they?

The Bourne and Sagamore bridges have been the gateway to Cape Cod since 1935.
US Army Corps of Engineers
The Bourne and Sagamore bridges have been the gateway to Cape Cod since 1935.

Patrick Flanary: Plans are underway to replace the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges, as we've been reporting here on CAI. Every year there are about 38 million car trips across the bridges, and those cars often carry one or two people at a time. So this made Eve Zuckoff wonder what the new bridges could mean for public transportation and whether they could encourage people to make greener trips to the region. She's here right now joining me. Hi, Eve.

Eve Zuckoff: Hey, Patrick.

Patrick Flanary: Give us a picture of what role the bridges play in the Cape's mass transit system right now.

Eve Zuckoff: Well, right now, the bridges are the main gateway to the Cape for most people, year rounders and visitors alike. The Regional Transit Authority, or the RTA, has 51 one-way bus trips that go back and forth across the bridges daily. And if we're talking about sustainability in this conversation, I will mention that the RTA wants to make their bus fleet entirely electric by 2030. And then of course, there are other busses that people use, like the P&B and Peter Pan. People can also walk and bike over the bridges, at their own risk. And of course, not all the mass transit methods rely on the Bourne and Sagamore. In summer as you've got the Cape Flyer train that runs 15 weeks and two different ferry companies: Bay State Cruise Company or Boston Harbor Cruises, they go from Boston to Provincetown. So there are actually a lot of options.

Patrick Flanary: Yeah, plenty in the pipeline. So overall, we have seen growth in public transportation around the region over the last 20 years.

Eve Zuckoff: Yes, but people mainly still use cars to get to the Cape and get themselves around the region. So here's how the RTA administrator Tom Cahir put it:

Tom Cahir: "We need to make people aware that public transportation is safe, accessible, efficient. But there's always going to be that faction that's never going to want to give up their cars. But the more we can reduce vehicular traffic on the Cape, I think it's better for everybody."

Patrick Flanary: Okay. We know that mass transit and motorless travel is better for the environment. So how will the new bridges be better for people coming over by foot, bike, train, bus?

Eve Zuckoff: Yeah. We don't know exactly what the designs will look like for these new bridges, but the engineers working on the project say the width of the bridges will be almost doubled, and a bike and pedestrian lane is something that is very, very much on the table. A bus lane is probably less likely. But local transportation experts said that efforts to improve and expand our public transit options are limited not by the bridges, but by everything on either side of the bridges. The main barrier for people to use public transit in most neighborhoods in this region is just the lack of easy to reach bus stops, for example. Those connection points. So here's how Steven Tupper of the Cape Cod Commission put it.

Steve Tupper: "There's a lack of connectivity. And you've got some great amenities on both sides of the park and rides. You can connect up to a much larger transportation system. But there's some very specific discontinuities that make it a real challenge to use the bridges if you're not in a vehicle."

Patrick Flanary: Steve Tupper of the Cape Cod Commission there. So, Eve, the new bridges, whenever they happen, will this present an opportunity to change how we travel onto the Cape, or are they just going to be bigger, better bridges for cars to cross?

Eve Zuckoff: That is a great question, and I think that's the million dollar question here. The experts I talked to said absolutely they would like to see funding for bike and walker access, as well as expanded rail (train) options as part of the $4 billion bridge project that we're entering into because we should be greening the system with this once in a lifetime effort, not just repaving the driveway. But I think there could be concerns down the line from people who care about sustainability and equity, given just how car-centric this project may end up being. And really, this is the moment for people to speak up. But it's difficult when the information about the new bridges comes out in drips. So anyway, right now, local decision makers said they are at the table for these new bridges, but they're focused on growing mass transit, adding more connection points and public transit options for people getting around the Cape, not necessarily to it. So in that way, I think the bridges are limited given current leadership.

Patrick Flanary: And we also know they're going on 90 years old.

Eve Zuckoff: That's right.

Patrick Flanary: Built in 1935. That's Eve Zuckoff on yet another thing to consider in this effort to build new Bourne and Sagamore Bridges, whenever that happens. Eve, Thank you.

Eve Zuckoff: Thank you, Patrick.

This conversation is part of CAI's "Building Bridges" series.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.