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State OK's removal of Sagamore rotary

The Sagamore Rotary, long the most grueling hurdle for thousands of travelers who flock to Cape Cod on summer weekends, will be dismantled beginning as early as this spring and replaced by a road that sends Route 3 traffic straight onto the Sagamore Bridge.

 

State Environmental Affairs Secretary Ellen Roy Herzfelder gave her final approval yesterday of the $35 million project, which was opposed by environmentalists and some residents who worried that easier access to the Cape would increase development.

"To everyone who has had to endure that broken intersection, we are on our way to fixing it," said Daniel A. Grabauskas, state secretary of transportation. "It is a great milestone."

The project, discussed for as long as 40 years, has no other significant obstacles to its completion, slated for summer 2006. Last month, the Federal Highway Administration agreed to provide $28 million, and the state has already set aside its $7 million portion. Plans are already underway to take four houses and a business by eminent domain to make room for the project, said Grabauskas.

During midday traffic on summer Saturdays, the trip from Route 3 across the bridge would drop from 27 minutes to 6 minutes, according to the Executive Office of Transportation and Construction.

Summertime Cape traffic has long been the stuff of stories and the setting for family fights as sweltering drivers and passengers inch toward the Sagamore Rotary, with the smell of exhaust serving as prelude to the clear air of the Cape. Longtime tourists and some residents even place decals on their cars denoting permission to enter a fictitious Cape Cod Tunnel and have debated a variety of solutions to the traffic, such as ferries across the canal or even building more roads.

The plan approved yesterday calls for the elimination of the rotary, with its familiar last-stop food mart. Instead, Route 3 will narrow from two lanes to one, feeding a stream of traffic directly onto the left-hand lane of the bridge's two southbound lanes. Travelers on the Bourne Scenic Highway parallel to the Cape Cod Canal will take a new ramp to the bridge's right-hand southbound lane.

With the rotary removed, the Scenic Highway will be straightened and dip under the new overpass, ending years of frustration for Bourne residents, who found the trip across town nearly impossible on many summer days.

Yesterday, conservationists said the rotary in some ways was the last true barrier preventing the upper Cape from becoming a suburb of Boston. They also worry that increased development could further tax Cape Cod's sole source of drinking water, and they suggest that traffic snarls will continue, spurred by people's belief that it is easier to get to Cape Cod. Some questioned why Governor Mitt Romney was staunchly behind the dismantling of the rotary, even as he promised a platform of smart growth in the state.

"They say if you build it, they will come. The only twist to this is, if you remove it, they will come," said Bennet Heart, senior lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation. The organization has long opposed the project, and has urged a more intensive environmental review than the one that led to yesterday's decision.

"Cape Cod is a much beloved resource, but it's also a fragile one. We should think very carefully before we open up this opportunity for more growth," he said.

Roy Herzfelder agreed that development could increase with the project, and ordered the state Highway Department to provide at least $500,000 for open-space preservation. At current prices, some environmentalists pointed out yesterday, that $500,000 might buy one house lot.

There is no dispute that the rotary, which dates from the same era as the 1935 Sagamore Bridge, is inadequate. Built for some 35,000 cars per day, it now handles an average of 70,000 to 90,000 during peak summer travel days, Grabauskas said. The new configuration could attract yet more cars, he said.

Cape Cod tourists have long pined for a way to make their travel to the Cape easier. Many go for the weekend or rent houses on a week-to-week basis, and traffic can snarl starting at midday Friday, easing slightly late Saturday afternoon and picking up again at midday Sunday.

But some tourists and residents said yesterday they feared that the new layout would create a safety hazard. Without the rotary to slow drivers, they said, vehicles would come too fast onto the narrow Sagamore Bridge, which has no divider between northbound and southbound traffic.

Others worried that their already overdeveloped region will become overrun.

"I recognize the need for Sagamore Beach [residents] to exit their community safely; it's really hairy now," said Beth Ellis, a longtime resident of South Sagamore and former reference librarian for the Sandwich Public Library. "But I absolutely deplore the underpassing, overpassing, and cloverleafing of Cape Cod. It is going to dump more traffic onto an infrastructure that can't be expanded without more pavement."

Beth Daley can be reached by email at Bdaley@globe.com.

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