Why we still sit in traffic on the way to the Cape

To the thousands of drivers who crawl through the Sagamore Rotary on summer weekends–nerves fraying as carloads of cranky kids reach the breaking point–the state’s plan for re-engineering the gateway to Cape Cod must look like navigational nirvana. Rather than having the traffic that pours down Route 3 squeeze its way around the circle at the foot of the Sagamore Bridge in Bourne, crossing paths with off-Cape traffic heading toward Buzzards Bay, the planned $30 million Sagamore “flyover” calls for Route 3 to rise over the rotary and deliver cars directly to the bridge. Similarly, traffic coming over the bridge leaving the Cape would have a straight shot onto Route 3 north toward Boston.

Not everyone is eager to see all those cars whoosh over the Sagamore rotary.

The state sees this scheme as an imperative. “This is something that has to be done, and we’re going to do everything we can to get it done,” says state Highway Commissioner Matthew Amorello.

But not everyone is so eager to see all those cars whoosh right over the Sagamore Rotary. The tangled traffic circle that is a beach-bound traveler’s summer nightmare is also one family’s financial dream. And their fight to preserve the roadway status quo has spun out an equally tangled web of political connections and bitter rivalries.

The Sorenti family, a mainstay of the Bourne community for generations, has built a business empire in the area, operating everything from gas stations to a liquor store, a home heating oil business, and a wholesale fuel supply operation for marinas and local airports. The thousands of cars that battle their way around the Sagamore Rotary each summer day are dollar signs on wheels for the Sorenti businesses–especially the Texaco station that sits right on the edge of the traffic circle. And the family makes no bones about being the fly in the flyover ointment.

Cape Bound: A gas station owner, political
infighting, and environmental concerns
keep Sagamore Bridge traffic backed up.

Photo by Ren Norton/Courtesy Boston Herald

“We want something to occur to maketraffic flow more smoothly,” says Rick Musiol, a grandson of family patriarch Joseph Sorenti and spokesman for the Sorenti businesses. “Having said that, I will tell you we are not in favor of the proposal on the table.” Musiol says other options need further exploration, including steps as simple as better signs on the approaches to the rotary, which he says could improve traffic flow without destroying local businesses.

Amorello says no one “wants to roll over anyone’s rights or do any harm.” But after years of study, he says, the flyover is now the best hope for relieving one of the most notorious traffic bottlenecks in the state. It should not be held up because of “one family in opposition,” he says.

But the Sorentis have their allies. State Sen. Therese Murray of Plymouth and state Rep. Ruth Provost of Sandwich both say the state needs to go back to the drawing board to devise a plan that doesn’t pose such a threat to local businesses. (The plan would also require the taking of several houses in the area.)

Murray’s ties to the Sorenti cause are particularly tight: Until last year, family spokesman Musiol served on Murray’s State House staff. The Sorentis have also been among Murray’s most generous campaign donors, with family members contributing $2,950 to her campaign account from 1998 to 2000. (Murray also regularly fills her tank at the Sorentis’ two Bourne gas stations, according to her campaign spending records.)

Murray bristles at the suggestion that the Sorentis wield undue influence over her in the flyover debate. Indeed, she sees the hand of a political rival at work. “You must be talking to Tommy Cahir,” she says.

Cahir was the local state representative from 1985 to 1998. If the Sorentis are hoping to quash the flyover scheme, Cahir is hoping it will serve as his public service legacy. “It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to see if you’re not impeded by the rotary and you move right onto the bridge, there’s going to be reduced queuing,” Cahir says. “The greater public good has to happen.”

In 1994, while serving as House chairman of the Legislature’s transportation committee, Cahir got $30 million for the project earmarked in a transportation bond bill, and seeing the project through to completion has become his obsession. After losing a race for Barnstable County sheriff in 1998, Cahir was hired on as special assistant to state Transportation Secretary Kevin Sullivan, a post from which flyover opponents fear he is now muscling ahead his pet project.

But if the resistance of the Sorentis and their political champions smacks of bottom-line interests, it gets an echo from the earnest ranks of the Cape Cod Commission, the regional planning body formed in 1990 to rein in uncontrolled development on the Cape. The commission has never taken a formal vote on the proposed flyover, but its misgivings about the project are well known. “Many of us are not convinced that it is the correct solution,” says Ken Brock, a founding member of the commission who stepped down last year.

Brock, a Truro resident who organized and served as chairman of the Commission’s transportation committee, questions just how much congestion the flyover would relieve, since the cars still have to squeeze over the same two narrow lanes of the Sagamore Bridge. And he worries that, with the Big Dig eating away at scarce state highway funds, scores of more worthy road projects on the Cape might be sacrificed on the flyover’s altar.

“When you have limited funds, do you put $25 [million] or $30 million into this one project, or do you fund all the smaller projects to ameliorate problems of the people who live here?” asks Brock.

But these doubts have not dampened enthusiasm for the flyover among those desperate to get back and forth across the bridge more smoothly, including the residents of Bourne, whose town is divided by the Cape Cod Canal. “We’re prisoners down here from May into November,” says Clem Delfavero, a member of the Bourne planning board who lives half a mile from the rotary. “People want it down here, believe me.”

Delfavero is one who has little sympathy for Joe Sorenti. “He might lose a little bit of business,” says Delfavero. “But he’s not going to go broke. The man has more money than God.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

And the state is moving ahead with the plan, the Sorentis and local legislators notwithstanding. MassHighway recently awarded $2.8 million in contracts for a comprehensive environmental review of the project and for final construction design.

Don’t rev your engines just yet, however. Amorello says the flyover could be completed by the summer of 2006, but that’s the best-case scenario for Cape-bound traffic relief. “That’s no glitches, everything rolling according to plan,” he says. Until then, if your gas tank runs low from inching toward the bridge in stop-and-go traffic, you can always fill up at the rotary.