Cape Cod Traffic

by Russ Roberts on August 27, 2007

in Complexity & Emergence, Prices

In a comment on a recent post of Don’s about Cape Cod, Spencer asks about my prediction about Cape Cod traffic. He is referring to this article I wrote in the Boston Globe last November where I predicted that the $62 million project to eliminate congestion at the entrance to the Cape was likely to fail. Here is what I wrote:

Getting rid of the rotary can’t solve the traffic problem because it
doesn’t change the underlying cause of the congestion: the relative
scarcity of sand and surf next to magnificent dunes.

A lot of
wonderful scarce things are expensive. Think box seats at Fenway on a
perfect night in June, Van Gogh’s paintings, or a condo overlooking
Central Park.

But sitting on the beach at Cape Cod is wonderful
and scarce and relatively cheap — cheap measured by the out-of-pocket
costs of a day trip. So more people want to enjoy the Cape than there
is room for them on the Cape’s roads and beaches. Removing a rotary
makes that problem worse, not better. It removes one of the costs of
enjoying those beaches. So other costs emerge in response, though no
one wants it that way.

Next July or August, there will be a new
bottleneck. I’m not sure where it will be, but I’m confident it will be
there. The only question is how bad it will be.

The first test of the so-called Sagamore flyover came on Memorial Day. The Globe reported:

For thousands of visitors, going to  Cape Cod   over Memorial Day weekend was much easier and more pleasant than heading home.

The new $60 million flyover, which erased the hated rotary at the base
of the Sagamore Bridge, smoothed Cape-bound travel on Friday and
Saturday. But drivers returning from the Cape Monday found themselves
in a worse-than-usual traffic nightmare, with backups that stretched as far  as 17 miles to Yarmouth at midafternoon.

To avoid a repeat this summer, state transportation officials said
yesterday they plan to install electronic signs urging vacationers to
stagger their departure from the Cape as well as their arrival.
Officials said they will also look at possible changes to the roadways
around Exit 1, where Route 6A merges into Route 6 at the base of the

Evidently, there are still problems as this article a week and a half ago from South Coast Today illustrates:

For Gov. Dukakis, a recent trip to the Cape
reiterated the need for the rail line when he and his wife sat in heavy
traffic before and after crossing the Sagamore Bridge.

Money that went into the $62 million flyover project would have been better spent on rail lines, he said.

When something valuable (experiencing Cape Cod) is underpriced, it will inevitably be overused and congestion will ration access. Something that appears to be an engineering problem (an inefficient traffic rotary) is really an economics problem.

Two reports don’t prove a prediction. I’d love to see some real data on whether delays are more common or less. Anybody out there have any info? Diligent observers can go here on Fridays and Sundays and make their own estimates of whether traffic is free-flowing. Meanwhile, here’s a story from December 2003 that called it a $35 million project. I guess it’s hard to keep costs down in Massachusetts.


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