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 bridge.
The merge is on the other side of the bridge from the flyover, the two-year project completed in October that replaced the roundabout at the intersection of Routes 3 and 6, which traditionally tied up Cape-bound traffic.
Officials said the holiday weekend began with no problems at the flyover, which gives Cape-bound drivers a straight shot to the Sagamore Bridge. In fact, officials said, the traffic improvement and the publicity about it might have encouraged more people to go to the Cape. More hotels and motels sold out than for a typical Memorial Day, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce said yesterday.
But on Monday, improving weather lulled many families into staying later, resulting in thousands trying to leave during the same few hours that afternoon.
Backups ranged from 2 to 17 miles on Route 6 and lasted from 11 a.m. to past 8 p.m., officials said. At one point around 3 p.m., Route 6 traffic heading off the Cape stretched to Yarmouth. An afternoon five-vehicle crash in Hyannis between Exits 5 and 6 made things worse. Roads parallel to Route 6, often a way to get around traffic, were clogged, as well. Local residents reported having to wait to pull out of their driveways on to those roads.
The O'Keeffe family of Weston was one of those headed nowhere fast. Elizabeth O'Keeffe, 45, put her 17-year-old daughter behind the wheel for her first drive from Hyannisport to home. Her son whiled away the 1 1/2-hour drive from Exit 6 to the Sagamore Bridge quizzing his sister for an upcoming chemistry test. That portion of their drive normally takes 25 minutes.
"To my recollection this was the worst I have ever experienced," O'Keeffe said by phone.
Tom Mason of Lakeville celebrated his 45th birthday in the traffic with his wife and two young daughters, who were in an another car and turned around to meet him at the Burger King off Exit 6 to escape the slowdown. The family stayed there and at the Cape Cod Mall for four hours until traffic eased.
The flyover may have made drivers think all was fixed, he said.
"I think everybody in Massachusetts was interested about the construction and what was going to be happening without the rotary and how that was going to impact traffic in its first real test," Mason said by phone. "Personally, I think we had a pretty positive experience. . . . They fixed part of the problem, but they didn't fix all of the problem."
In response to travel horror stories, state officials and traffic watchers cautioned that the flyover was not designed to cure all of the Cape's congestion.
"The flyover was designed to improve traffic flow on Route 3 southbound," said Jeff Larson, general manager of SmartRoute Systems Inc., the Cambridge-based traffic monitoring firm that monitored the backups Monday.
"It doesn't make the traffic disappear," added John Lamontagne, spokesman for the Executive Office of Transportation. "There are three big weekends on which the Cape gets crushed with tourists, and this was one of them."
A chokepoint remains the Sagamore Bridge, which has 10-foot-wide lanes that are 2 feet narrower than standard highway lanes. It can handle 3,400 vehicles an hour in each direction and quickly gets congested.
Officials are also dealing with complaints from Cape-bound motorists about backups on Route 3, which goes from two lanes to one just before the bridge.
The same problem that unfolded Monday confronts State Police, state emergency planners, and others as they prepare next month to release an updated plan to evacuate Cape Cod in case of a hurricane or other emergency.
The emergency traffic plan, to be unveiled June 20, calls for traffic to be routed through the Massachusetts Military Reservation to avoid congestion at Exit 1. The base would be used as shelter if the two bridges are closed because of high winds or accident.
Mac Daniel can be reached at email@example.com.