Soundings : The line forms here
The roadside sign on the outskirts of Edgartown, shortly before you reach the post office square, warns drivers that the speed limit is reduced from 45 to 35 miles per hour. This summer, sitting in my car beside that sign, I find its message taking on a certain irony. When you're brooding in neutral with cars backed up clear into town, even five miles per hour starts to sound pretty good.
Perhaps instead of posting a revised speed limit, the sign should say something like, "Abandon ye all hope who enter here."
Two of the Island's seven most congested stretches of road, on the Martha's Vineyard Commission's short list, are the Triangle area and Upper Main Street in Edgartown. The motorist experiences these as not two roads, but a single logjam. By the Martha's Vineyard Commission's count, Upper Main Street traffic hits well over 20,000 vehicles per day in peak season, more than at Tisbury's fabled Five Corners. It's an altogether different situation, anyway - Five Corners may be dizzyingly complicated, but at least its traffic moves, even when ferries are unloading.
What we've got in Edgartown, tantalizingly close to the Park & Ride lot, is the Sit & Stew Street.
Among traffic engineers, a key measure of commuter pain is LOS, which stands for level of service. It's a way to talk about congestion, and it works just like the grades we got back in school. When a road is working at LOS A, it's at the top of the class, handling traffic flow as well as could be possibly expected. At LOS F, a roadway has failed - the Wikipedia definition describes it nicely as "road for which travel time cannot be predicted." In other words, when you'll get to where you're going is anybody's guess.
We need a whole new category for the approach to Edgartown - perhaps LOS Z might catch the spirit of it. And this isn't for the few minutes of pain when a ferry is unloading. The interval we're talking about is July and August.
At the Triangle, roads from Tisbury, from Oak Bluffs and from the Dark Woods subdivision feed into Upper Main. Traffic from downtown also turns into the post office square and soon is trying to pull back onto the road into town. At six separate points along the entrance route to town, we have what the traffic engineers call zipper intersections - spots where cars from two roads alternate, feeding into one. (For the most part, this turn-taking is remarkably civilized - relatives visiting us from Iowa last week remarked on how polite everyone was on their trip through this gauntlet.)
Drivers who know the neighborhood can choose among a variety of gambits in hopes of shaving a few minutes off their travel time. A popular trick is to cut left into the Your Market parking lot (watch the speed bumps!) and across to the Beach Road, avoiding the tangle at the post office. Another is to turn right at the Bank of Martha's Vineyard branch and trundle through the series of parking lots, hoping to zipper your way back into the town-bound queue at the Dark Woods Road. This is the highway equivalent of cutting ahead in line at the supermarket, but less obvious - you can pretend, perhaps, that you had errands at the bank or liquor store.
If you're naïve enough to have coasted into that dead zone between the spot where everyone has veered off the main road and the point where they're all trying to pull back in, woe be unto you. I hope you packed provisions and a good book to read, because you're going to be there for awhile.
You'll get no protest from the traffic experts at the suggestion that this stretch at the edge of Edgartown is the mother of all Island summer traffic messes. It was Jane Talbot, the new traffic planner at the Martha's Vineyard Commission, who suggested in a conversation with me last week that perhaps Z might be its proper LOS category.
"There have been studies done in that area," she said. "It's been identified as an area that needs improvement, but I don't know if they've actually come up with a solution for it yet. If you ask me personally, and not as the transportation planner, I think that a bypass is needed to get over to the West Tisbury Road."
Bingo. Everyone realizes that a bypass road - not new signage, not another lane and certainly not a traffic cop - is the only real solution. Tisbury, to its credit, has faced a similar situation on State Road and is planning a connector that promises to solve its traffic problems. The bypass will begin near the entrance to Island Food Products and branch out, making three connections to State Road and greatly easing traffic pressure at the Look Street intersection.
Meanwhile, buried in the back of the Transportation Improvement Program, a document kept at the Martha's Vineyard Commission offices in Oak Bluffs, is a list of future priorities that gives some sense of when we might expect relief for the Vineyard's single worst stretch of road. Reading from that document on her computer last week, Ms. Talbot said, "Unfortunately, I just found it, under fiscal year 2021-2025: Triangle Roadway Improvement Phase 1, then in fiscal years 2026-2030, Triangle Roadway Improvement Phase 2."
The intersection that's really giving us trouble is the one where traffic planning collides with local politics and priorities. Everyone knows the problem. Everyone knows the solution. But don't hold your breath.