By Keith O’Brien
BOURNE – In the four years that Jose Velez has owned a vacation home on Cape Cod, he has tried almost everything to avoid the dreaded Cape-bound traffic on warm summer weekends. One solution: leaving his home in Wellesley at 1 a.m. or later.
“It’s a lot smoother,” he said. But such tactics are less necessary now for Velez and others – both tourists and residents – who have been forced to get creative or endure agonizing commutes over the years. The reason: a $60 million road project, which in late 2006 replaced the notorious Sagamore rotary with a straight stretch of highway heading over the Sagamore Bridge and onto the Cape.
The rotary, about 50 miles south of Boston, was long considered one of the worse intersections in the state, a choke-hold that could back up Cape-bound traffic for miles on the worst travel days of the year. By doing away with it, state officials, local residents, and those who summer on the Cape say the state managed to both improve traffic flow and the quality of life in a place where good living is especially prized.
“You’d live in fear –you’d live in mortal fear – of being caught in traffic for 45 minutes at that spot,” said Steve Grossman, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who lives in Newton, owns a home in Centerville, and often makes the drive back and forth to Boston in the summer. But now? “It’s lovely. I can’t tell you how much it’s changed people’s quality of life in terms of Cape travel.”
Car accident data suggest that Grossman is right. According to combined data collected by State Police and the Bourne Police Department, there were 128 accidents on or near the Sagamore Bridge in 2006, the rotary’s last year of existence. There were half as many last year, according to the data, and only 26 so far this year.
The figures indicate that the new roadway – often called “the flyover” – seems to be especially effective in the peak months of June, July, and August, when the rich, the connected, and the fortunate flock to the Cape. Between June and August 2006, according to state and local law enforcement statistics, there were 44 accidents on or near the Sagamore Bridge, compared with 19 during the same period last year and 10 recorded through almost the end of July this year.
Fewer accidents means less gridlock, and that has made rotary-free living very popular. But not everyone is enjoying the new straight shot over the bridge. The rotary, for as many problems as it caused, was home to several businesses, and a few report that they are struggling as former customers zoom right on past on an elevated roadway, often choosing not to exit.
“Every other day people show up and say, ‘We didn’t know you were still here.’ And we say, ‘Hell,’” said Mohammad Shafique, the owner of Ye Olde Spirit Shoppe, a liquor store located near the old rotary. “We’re still here.”
The rotary and the bridge were built in the 1930s, with the rotary designed to accommodate a maximum of 40,000 cars each day. The four lanes on the bridge, straddling the Cape Cod Canal, are just 10-feet wide, two feet narrower than standard highway lanes, and these lanes see more traffic than the original planners ever envisioned. On a single day in the peak of summer, as many as 75,000 vehicles cross the bridge.
The traffic, growing throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, created endless headaches for weekend visitors, their screaming children parked in the back seat and traffic often at a standstill – so close to the Cape, yet still so far. With the traffic, and frustration, came car accidents. The rotary was always good for several dozen accidents a year – or more – and finally, in July 2004, the state had enough.
The project was completed in October 2006, with the first real test last summer. Under the new system, drivers need to exit in order to reach businesses on the old rotary – and Route 3’s two lanes merge into one just before crossing the bridge to make room for traffic coming east on the Route 6 Scenic Highway.
The merging traffic – here and on the other side of the bridge – inevitably leads to backups. But while travelers still find themselves sitting in traffic, wasting time and gasoline at about $4 a gallon, those who use the bridge most often say life without the rotary is better than they ever expected.
“You’d heard about it for 10 years –‘Oh, we’re going to do it’ – and by the time it came to fruition I thought it was not going to work,” said Andrea Suba, who lives in Sagamore Beach, a village of Bourne on the north side of the bridge, and sells condominiums across the canal. “But it actually seems to be working.”
On a warm summer Friday night in the rotary era, Suba said, it could take her an hour to make the 7-mile drive home from work; the same drive at off-peak hours took about 12 minutes. But these days, Suba said, her Friday night commute is hardly worse than her commute any other night of the week.
“It used to be that Friday afternoons were kind of quiet,” said Robert Johnson, co-owner of Johnson Electric Supply in Sagamore Beach, explaining that most customers didn’t want to brave the traffic to come to his shop. “Now, with the flyover or whatever you call it, you can get here whenever you want. It’s a vast improvement.”
But just how much of an improvement remains unclear. Lev Malakhoff, senior transporation engineer for the Cape Cod Commission, said traffic, even without the rotary, still backs up, sometimes for miles, on Sundays as people try to leave the Cape. Such snags are inevitable, however, said Thomas Cahir, deputy secretary of rail and intermodal programs at the state Executive Office of Transportation and a big proponent of the project. There’s only so much that four 10-foot lanes of highway can do, he pointed out, and most people understand.
“Quite frankly,” Cahir said, “the reviews have been extraordinary.”
But not near the old rotary. Michael Kuronen, director of development for McDonald’s in the Boston region, said in a written statement that the company is “concerned about the future” of its Sagamore Bridge restaurant and evaluating the location.
Shafique, who owns Ye Olde Spirit Shoppe liquor store, says business was down 50 percent last year and about 25 percent this year.
And while Shafique hopes customers will continue to return, others, like Joe Sorenti Jr., owner of the Little Red Tow Truck service station, aren’t as optimistic.
“This is July,” the 55-year-old, grease-stained father of two said recently, eyeing an empty parking lot. “Look at the place. Look at it. It’s dead slow.”
Recently he even had time to fix his own car, a 1998 Jeep Cherokee, while cars zipped by on the highway outside, bound for the Cape and, sadly, for Sorenti, not the least bit interested in stopping.