Welcome to the Sagamore Rollover

See the original Op-Ed in ProjoWelcome to the Sagamore Rollover

By JACK COLEMAN 

REMEMBER the Sagamore Rotary on the approach to the easternmost span over the Cape Cod Canal, the Sagamore Bridge? If so, it's probably without affection since the oft-maligned roundabout faded into memory last September. In its place is a new road system known as the Sagamore Flyover.

As a commuter who has driven over the Sagamore Bridge innumerable times over the years, I was skeptical of the need for the state to spend $60 million -- while seizing four homes and a business by eminent domain -- to eliminate the rotary. My doubts have been reinforced after driving several times through the new project, and in resistance from the state to my inquiries. I wanted to learn more about an aspect of the design, one that many people won't learn of until next summer with the first extended period of peak traffic.

Heading south on Route 3, the two high-speed lanes narrow to a single lane a half-mile before the bridge. The single lane forms one of two lanes onto Cape Cod when it merges at the base of the Sagamore Bridge with an on-ramp from the Scenic Highway (Route 6) coming from Buzzards Bay.

Ask yourself this: What happens when motorists on a congested highway are confronted with two lanes narrowing to one? Same thing as with a yellow light -- they drive faster, at least initially. Add to that a gentle S-curve before the bottleneck and drivers unfamiliar with the new design are deprived of seeing what's ahead from much distance away. Take into account the larger vehicles these days, the powerful SUVs, pick-ups and minivans using more space on the road, with higher centers of gravity and less stability when skidding or abruptly stopped.

Combine these elements and the result: An accident of a type that may lead to a new name for the design -- the Sagamore Rollover. And when crashes occur, that single-lane bottleneck will tie up traffic for miles because the lack of a second lane won't allow for safety-valve siphoning of vehicles around an accident, as typically occurs on highways. Most perversely of all, a fire station once at the rotary -- which allowed emergency response to be measured in seconds instead of minutes -- was moved a half-mile away.

In fairness to the state, the rotary was host to some of the worst traffic tie-ups in the state every summer. Built in the mid-1930s, it was designed to accommodate 35,000 vehicles daily, not the 70,000 to 90,000 passing through at peak volume.

And the project is an anomaly for Massachusetts -- one that actually got built on time. It had been floated as an idea for more than a decade before gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney vowed during the 2002 campaign (after getting stuck in traffic heading to a political event, according to political lore) to make the project a priority.

It was built "not just to facilitate traffic," said state transportation official Thomas Cahir, of Bourne, a former state representative and vocal proponent. "The primary purpose was safety."

Cahir doubted my premise that the single-lane bottleneck could pose a hazard, pointing out that the project met stringent state and federal safety codes. As of mid-December, a serious accident had not occurred, he said. Local residents and business owners were happy with the results. "Those are folks who are thanking us for it now," Cahir said. "There is no real panacea here, but I think this is far greater than what anyone expected." The old rotary was not only a traffic nightmare but a scene of frequent accidents, Cahir said. "Granted, the accidents in many cases weren't life-threatening," he added, as to be expected in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The state is hedging its bets when it comes to the single-lane design, however. Should the design prove unfeasible, or a disaster force mass evacuation off-Cape, MassHighway can widen the roadway.

Asked how the state settled on the counterintuitive concept, Cahir cited computer models of traffic flow into the old rotary. The numbers came as a surprise to me (and to Cahir as well, at least initially).

The modeling, conducted during July several summers ago, found less than half of vehicles going over the bridge during peak volume came from Route 3 ---- 45 percent, to be specific. An equal percentage came from the Scenic Highway, and the remaining 10 percent from two lesser roads into the rotary. But anyone familiar with the locale is likely to be doubtful of this 45-45-10 percent breakdown. First of all, Route 3 coming into the rotary consisted of two lanes from a highway extending back more than 50 miles.

But the two eastbound lanes of the Scenic Highway narrowed to a single lane coming into the rotary, and went back only five miles to another rotary. Logistically it would be all but impossible for the Scenic Highway to convey the same volume of traffic into the rotary as Route 3 -- short of a perpetual traffic cop waving its vehicles through.

Not only that, but many motorists left Route 3 at Exit 2 and drove through Cedarville to avoid traffic backed up before the rotary (I have taken this detour countless times). The modeling would include these motorists in the 10 percent figure when logic dictates they should be included in the Route 3 tally.

The precise details of the modeling remain a mystery because Cahir refuses to release the report. Do what you have to do to acquire it, he told me, which I interpret as code for filing a public-records request. Which I plan to do, and with any luck the state will comply as dutifully as it seized four homes and a business to build a $60 million project based on a questionable premise.
Jack Coleman, an occasional contributor, and former political reporter and bureau chief with The Cape Cod Times, is a freelance writer based in Plymouth. (This is reprinted with permission from the Tuesday edition of the Providence Journal here.)

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