I really shouldn’t tell you this, but Cape Cod is a very beautiful place. I shouldn’t mention its beaches with their towering sand dunes. I shouldn’t mention the golden eagle I saw soaring over the marsh near the cottage where we stayed on vacation. I shouldn’t mention the charm of the Cape Cod baseball league, where college players try to show major league scouts they can hit with a wooden bat and where the fans get in for free and the dogs and toddlers are unleashed.
I shouldn’t mention all this because it might encourage a bunch of you to come to Cape Cod when I’m there. That would drive up the cost of the rent I pay. And it would make the traffic problem on Cape Cod worse than it already is, hard as that is to imagine for those of us who already know the place.
For those of you who don’t know the Cape, there’s basically only one road, Route 6, that runs the length of its arm-shaped peninsula. If you want to get to Provincetown at the fingertip, or Chatham at the elbow or most of the points in between, you’ve got to get on Route 6. If you’re in Truro and it’s raining and you want to do something with the kiddies in Orleans, you’ve got to get on Route 6. And if you do this or anything else on Route 6, you’re doing it with all the other folks trying to do the same thing or anything else of consequence that involves a car.
Oh to be a golden eagle and soar above it all. Or a gray seal bobbing freely in the surf. Or even a pilot whale. (But a smart one. Not one that beaches itself and tries to find Route 6.)
Problem is, none of those solutions can carry the kids and luggage along. So it’s get in the car, stop and go on weekends, in the rain and sometimes even on a sunny Wednesday. On a rainy weekend, it’s mostly stop.
What’s to be done? The obvious solution is simple enough—widen Route 6. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much interest in widening Route 6. Or as one recent study of Cape Cod development put it: “Options for significantly increasing Route 6′s capacity involve serious environmental and community character decisions.”
The Cape is a somewhat fragile place. But I wonder if the real reason for the lack of interest in widening Route 6 has a lot more to do with the community-character issue than it has to do with environmental consciousness.
Consider an experiment. Let’s double the number of lanes on Route 6. Let’s assume there’s no environmental impact. And let’s make the ridiculous assumption that we widen Route 6 by snapping our fingers rather than doing what it would really take—the ruining of two or three summers of traffic due to construction.
Who would benefit from a wider Route 6 versus a narrower one? The answer would seem to be obvious. With a wider Route 6, traffic congestion will ease. The winners will be those who visit the Cape and would have sat in traffic using the current version of the road.
Yet, my guess is that most people on the Cape would disagree. And I think they’re right to disagree. Because I think a wider Route 6 would actually punish those who would visit Cape Cod and even some of the permanent residents.
How can that be? Start by remembering that Cape Cod isn’t the only place in the northeast with sand. Cape Cod draws people from New York and Boston and Philadelphia and even a family or two from St. Louis. Alternative destinations include the Hamptons and the JerseyShore and the MarylandShore and Gloucester and so on.
If the Hamptons get less attractive because of pollution or fashion or for whatever reason, a few more people are going to head to Cape Cod. And if Cape Cod gets more attractive because it’s easier to navigate the Cape via car, then more people are going to head to Cape Cod.
When people choose between vacation spots, they look at all the costs and benefits and choose according to their tastes. Traffic congestion is one of the prices you pay to visit the Cape. And if Route 6 gets wider, that lowers the price and increases the number of people that want to vacation on the Cape. As more people visit the Cape, Route 6 will start to get congested again.
And therein lies the essential element of the political support (or lack thereof) for widening the road. Route 6 may end up a little less congested after it’s been widened. But it will still be congested. And everything else is going to be dramatically more congested, particularly the beaches and the side roads. And unpredictable bottlenecks such as accidents and rain will have even less pleasant consequences than they do now.
On the plus side for generating political support for a wider Route 6, property owners will be able to charge higher rents as a wider Route 6 will lead to more demand for scarce beachfront and non-beachfront property. The political problem is that those owners often vacation on the Cape during those weeks when they’re not renting out their property. True, they’ll get a higher rent if Route 6 is widened, but they’ll also have a less pleasant time getting around the rest of the Cape when they’re taking their vacations. That reduces the value to them of a wider Route 6.
In the real world, it will take a lot of time to widen Route 6. So even those who might see a net gain have to put up against it the hassle of the construction costs.
Some might argue that the easy way to fix all this is to make Route 6 a toll road, either now or after it’s widened. By adding a monetary price on top of the time price, congestion can be eliminated under either scenario and the world will be a better place. But that solution is even less attractive politically. The toll would be paid by the users of the road, so they’d be worse off again, even though there would be a reduction in congestion.
So while widening Route 6 may have some appeal, ultimately, that appeal is greatly reduced by the realization that the net impact for many will be negative. Until we all get wings or fins, getting up and down the Cape will be a nuisance for a long, long, time.