MassDOT Considers Project to Build New Bridge to Cape Cod

It would require a public-private partnership so the state wouldn't get hit with the costs for construction.

Massachusetts residents are starting to pack their bags in anticipation of Memorial Day weekend, the official unofficial start of summer. But drivers bound for the beaches of Cape Cod will undoubtedly be met by bundled traffic when they head over the bridges that connect to their desired destinations, bringing headaches to weekenders before their time off even begins.

With any luck, however, officials from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation—through a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership—hope the days of bumper-to-bumper congestion are numbered, and within years a brand-new bridge will help alleviate Cape traffic. “I think, come this [weekend], people will be saying, ‘where’s that goddamn bridge,’” said Frank DePaola, highway administrator for MassDOT. “We think there’s a desire for it.”

On Wednesday, during a meeting of MassDOT’s Special Public-Private Partnership Infrastructure Committee, which was created to gauge the scope of such a massive project, officials received an update about the idea of “twinning”—that is, building a new bridge adjacent to—the Sagamore Bridge through a deal with a potential investor.

This is how a public-private partnership could work: An investment entity would be selected and tasked with fronting the costs to construct the bridge connecting to Cape Cod, and then would collect revenue to pay back the debt by installing tolls on the structure through a 30-year term. Once that term’s complete, the state would then take over. “The only reason you get someone to invest in private capital is because they get a rate of return, so we need to find projects that have some revenue potential that a private entity could use to generate that rate of return,” said DePaola of the proposed project.

The tolls on the bridge would give people the option to speed through traffic at a cost, or keep their money in their pockets and stay put by traveling along the two bridges normally used to get across the Cape Cod Canal. MassDOT officials have “kicked around” the idea of making it a “demand toll,” so that on weekdays it would cost less to travel over the structure, while on weekends the price would go up because of the heavier traffic. Of course, those are just preliminary ideas at this stage.

William Blair, an international investment bank based in Chicago with offices in Boston, was selected to represent MassDOT in coming up with a plan outlining the process to identify potential private developers that may be interested in funding and building the new bridge. Mark Moorehouse, a representative from William Blair, said the process has to start with a “Scoping Study,” before moving ahead to a vote for support for the project by MassDOT officials, followed by a Request for Qualifications from those firms.

He said actually finding an interested investor likely won’t be difficult. “This project has got a lot of intersecting facets to it,” Moorehouse said. “The private sector looks at this and says, ‘there’s a lot of ways we can add value to this.’ The fact that it could be a first for the Commonwealth is exciting…I think, yes, it will attract interest.”

DePaola said there’s no way the project can happen without that interest. “The only feasibility for the physical project to happen is if we get equity,” he said. “Because we have so many bridges in bad condition that need to be replaced, I couldn’t justify taking money from the program to build a new bridge to relieve traffic congestion.”

DePaola said if all goes accordingly from here—finding a private investor, securing permits, and hosting public hearings— the earliest the state could get “shovels in the ground” to begin construction would be in three years time. The bridge wouldn’t be finished for at least another four after that.

But he thinks it’s worth investigating, especially as the busy travel weekend approaches. “It’s still [undetermined] at this point, however, there’s now a real discussion about providing relief of congestion over the canal,” he said. “There’s some hope, and we need to figure out what we’re getting ourselves into.”