Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sagamore Bridge traffic can be a nightmare

After maddening events such as the gridlock created on Mother’s Day in 2012 or the 25-mile July 4th weekend backup this year, every amateur traffic engineer (including myself) gets to work at solving the problem of the Sagamore Bridge.


The Sagamore and Bourne Bridges were completed in 1935, a time before the Cape Cod summer bustle was as extreme as it has since become. The lane width on these bridges is ten feet, a full two feet skinnier than the standard widths used for bridge design today. Anything that further restricts the actual or perceived width of these lanes will, no doubt, slow down traffic even more.

In general, drivers are uncomfortable with the tight fit, especially in light of the high curb/sidewalk on one side and a high curb on the other. This is the primary reason why cars slow down when crossing the bridges and, ultimately, the constraint that leads to long backups at peak traffic times. Each bridge can manage just above 3,000 cars an hour. If 20,000 cars are leaving Cape Cod via the Sagamore Bridge between noon and 5:00pm on a Sunday, there will be a backup.

A menagerie of solutions for the Sagamore Bridge problem

Three lanes off/one lane on
This idea seems appealing at first blush and has been proposed as a Friday afternoon solution as well (three lanes on/one lane off). The problems with either of these proposals are:

1) Going back to the item noted above regarding anything that further narrows the lanes will slow down cars even more, the use of barrels, stanchions, pop-up dividers, or any other device to demarcate the three lanes in one direction from the one in the other would take up precious lane width, both actual and perceived. Furthermore, the double yellow line in the center of the bridge is in constant use. (How many times have you seen a car or truck with a tire on that centerline?) That is a clear indicator that the dividers would be mowed down in short order.

2) There are two-lane highways on either side of the bridge. Opening up the roadway to three lanes on the bridge would invite even bolder lane changes than we see now when drivers jockey to use one of the two exits on the north side of the Sagamore. Perhaps the left lane could be for Route 3 traffic only, one might suggest. A restriction such as this would require an additional series of barrels, stanchions, etc., between the two left lanes of the three lanes off, leaving the lane widths at nine feet or less.

Close down the entrance in front of the Christmas Tree Shop
There is support for this action because it is instinctive that this merging of traffic is jamming everything up. If this was the real constraint, then everyone would be flooring it immediately after passing this entrance and sailing across the bridge. The reality, on the other hand, is that traffic continues to crawl over the bridge, unclogging on the mainland side.

We could agree to disagree, but there is a way to determine whether it’s the bridge or the Christmas Tree Shop entrance that is the actual constraint. The bridge traffic counts are monitored 24/7 in both directions. By comparing the rate of flow at known peak times (that is, when there is a backup), one could determine if the southbound flow at peak is significantly higher than the northbound flow at peak. If that turns out to be the case, then the Christmas Tree Shop entrance would rise to the top of our culprits list. I will be requesting this comparison from the Department of Transportation to see what it reveals.

If the Exit 1 entrance does turn out to be a problem, closing it off is not going to be a panacea. One would assume that the options for a driver confronting this closure would be to continue on Route 6 to the Bourne Bridge or to circle back and join the fun at Exit 2. Our public safety officials in Bourne and Sandwich agree that both towns would be subject to frequent gridlock if this approach was taken. The three-mile stretch between the bridges on the two-lane Sandwich Road would also fill up quickly and block the residents living off of that road.

A better solution would be to reroute access from Route 6A by developing a one-way connector that runs along what is called Bayview Road which would start at the Sandwich/Bourne town line and dump into Route 6 about six-tenths of a mile south of Exit 1. This would relieve the jam up at the bridge while traffic could still use Exit 1 to leave Route 6.

Make each of the bridges one-way in opposite directions during peak times
That’s not going to happen.

Paint “fog lines” on the bridges
Fog lines are those white lines painted near the shoulder of a road to help drivers maintain their position within lanes on foggy nights. The theory here is that the narrow lanes and tall curbing on the bridges makes for nervous Nellies, which could be relieved by painting bright white lines next to the curbs to delineate the space a driver actually has at his/her disposal. A variation on this idea is to paint the sides of the curbing in a contrasting color to the pavement, accomplishing the same goal.

I find this intriguing in that there might be competing results from such a change. While better defining where the outside lane meets the curb, it might also create the perception of a narrower lane. As precarious as driving next to a tall curb may seem, relatively few people ever bump into it. Most of the scratches and gouges are courtesy of plow drivers, who apparently lose track of where their blades are in driving snow storms.

Move the sidewalk to the outside of the bridge
This seems like a no brainer, and like most no brainers, there’s more to the story. Although hanging a sidewalk on the outside of the bridge is doable, there is no road deck support under the existing sidewalk. In fact, the sidewalk is hollow, a space that is used for all of the utility cabling that crosses the Cape Cod Canal. To add an extra foot of width to each lane, which would still be substandard to the 12-foot widths that are used for new bridge construction, the infrastructure improvements would be very costly. It’s still worth consideration, however.

Add variable tolling (aka value pricing) to reduce traffic at peak times
“Avoid the rush, pay half as much.” This was the slogan for the Midpoint and Cape Coral Bridges in Lee County, Florida, when variable tolling was introduced in 1998. The discounted periods occurred before and after the normal morning and evening rushes on weekdays with driver paying half of the normal $1 toll. Today, the toll is $2 and the discount remains at 50 cents. “Avoid the rush, pay three-quarters as much” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Of course, the bigger issue here is that there are no tolls. Adding an incentive to a current toll structure is certainly easier than selling the idea of tolling in the first place. The complication of the bridges being the property of the U.S. Government, operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, is an interesting one as well, though probably not unique.

Another problem is rooted in what economists call elasticity. It simply refers to how changing one variable affects others. In this case, if there is variable tolling, say $3 to cross at peak times and $1 to cross at nonpeak times (or even $3 at peak and zero at nonpeak), how effective would that be in encouraging people to avoid Friday or Sunday afternoons or noontime on Saturdays? Would a typical tourist care about $3 when it’s less than half of what he paid for a glass of wine the night before? There would be a point at which behaviors would change, no doubt, but that might be the same point at which a tourist decides that coming to the Cape is just not worth it.

Build a new bridge
As a permanent solution for our traffic woes, $320 million or so would pay for a new bridge to supplement the two existing bridges. Eliminating the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges altogether would cost more on the order of $600 million.

One proposal is to build a third bridge about halfway between the two existing bridges, funneling people from both Routes 3 and 25 across the canal with the option of heading towards Hyannis or Falmouth. Using land on the Massachusetts Military Reservation, soon to be Joint Base Cape Cod, feeder roads would connect traffic to/from Route 6 before Exit 2 and to/from Route 28 close to the Otis Rotary.

It is estimated that this new bridge would syphon off about 50% of the current traffic, turning the Bourne and Sagamore into “neighborhood” bridges. Another benefit would be that most heavy truck traffic would access the new bridge in order to avoid the Bourne Rotary and the tie-ups at Exit 1 on Route 6.

So what’s holding up the program? Setting aside all of the environmental issues, permitting, access to the MMR, etc., this would be mostly federally funded, which would put it up against many other Army Corps of Engineers projects across the country. To get on the list of accepted projects, there must be a “bang for the buck” that outstrips competing proposals.

The problem here is that 25-mile-long backups are a rare occurrence. Even the more typical six or eight mile backups only occur on summer Sundays and holiday Mondays and are usually dissipated within four or five hours. It would be a tough sell to propose infrastructure improvements sufficient to cover extreme peak usage when that usage is expected to occur only 10 or 15 times a year for durations of less than six hours. That’s about 90 to 100 hours out of nearly 8,800 a year, about one percent of the time.

Having worked in New York City, I could imagine a more compelling case for $320 million to be spent on traffic mitigation where the bridges are jammed up 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Weigh in

I have received many excellent suggestions via my blog and email replies in the past. Now’s the time for you to weigh in with your ideas.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts; driving while on the phone is not

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), consumer fireworks in 2011 caused 17,800 fires in the United States which "resulted in an estimated eight reported civilian deaths." Two things stand out in this factoid: 1) Like guns, cars and kitchen knives, fireworks generally do not injure or kill people without the intervention of a human being; and 2) what about the gathering of these statistics required the NFPA to qualify their statement with "an estimated eight reported civilian deaths?"

The American Pyrotechnics Association and National Council on Fireworks Safety offer up that an average of four people die from failed use of fireworks each year in the U.S. Many more, as one would suspect, are injured in fireworks accidents, logging 9,600 visits to the emergency room in 2011.

Groups that advocate for illegalizing fireworks, such as the Alliance to Stop Consumer Fireworks (formed by the NFPA and the American Academy of Pediatrics), argue that the dangers of using consumer fireworks outweigh the fun factor and that it's an optional activity in that no one must operate fireworks.

For purposes of comparison, one might argue that operating a cell phone while driving is also an optional activity and that it is far more dangerous than setting off a bottle rocket. In fact, the National Safety Council cites at least 1.3 million automobile crashes in 2011 that involved cell phone usage. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that 3,092 deaths were attributable to cell phone sourced distracted driving in 2010.

Given the magnitude of accidents, injuries and deaths associated with cell phone use while driving, would we not benefit from banning this activity in Massachusetts?

Could a cell phone ban be enforced? How do you know when someone is talking on a hands-free cell phone, singing along with Jim Croce's "Operator," or talking to himself? What if police were armed with a device that could detect that a cell phone is in use?

By the way, forget about banning cell phones unless the driver is using a hands-free device. The issue is not holding a phone to your ear; it's distracted driving. Several studies have shown that hands-free devices show no benefits over hand held cell phone use while driving.

Are you ready to relinquish more of your liberty in exchange for saving a life? Or hundreds of lives? To put it another way, do we want or need the government to again save ourselves from ourselves?