West Tisbury sees safety changes at dangerous intersection likely

West Tisbury and Island officials say they are encouraged that a short-term safety correction for the State Road and Old County Road intersection may be in the works, after Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) officials conducted a road safety audit of the site on Tuesday.

“I think they understood easily what we want for the short-term,” acting police Chief Dan Rossi told The Times.

As part of the audit process, the eight member DOT team and local officials spent about 40 minutes at the site and watched the change in driving behavior before and after Chief Rossi and Officer Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter placed 10 orange cones along State Road forcing up-Island-bound drivers to slow down and make a more deliberate left turn onto Old County Road.

The on-site audit may serve to override an earlier ruling by the DOT that had rejected the West Tisbury request that tube-shaped lane delineators be installed as a short-term solution to the intersection’s safety concerns. The West Tisbury selectmen learned that the request was denied in a June 24 DOT letter. The DOT official who had vetoed the request was not on hand for the audit.

The road safety audit was formally requested by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), at the urging of the West Tisbury selectmen, after a three-car accident at the intersection on May 19. Because State Road is a Commonwealth highway, any changes to its design must be initiated by the Commonwealth.

The DOT audit team included seven construction engineers and traffic safety experts from Boston and the DOT office on Cape Cod.

West Tisbury officials attending included selectmen Richard Knabel and Cynthia Mitchell, Chief Rossi and Sgt. Jeffrey Manter, also a selectman), fire Chief Manuel Estrella, Emergency Management Director John Christensen and Jennifer Rand, town administrator. Planning board chairman Virginia Jones submitted a letter to the audit team, and planning board member Jim Powell attended.

MVC executive director Mark London, as well as MVC transportation planner Michael Mauro and senior planner Bill Veno, also participated. Afterwards, Mr. London told The Times that “it was very helpful having representatives of all the organizations working on this together. I believe that this will lead to useful short- and long-term action.”

The audit process began with a standing room only introductory meeting of state and local officials, as well as residents, at town hall.

Research compiled by the DOT included a crash study conducted between January 2005 and through May 2010, that recorded seven crashes, including four making a left turn from State Road onto Old County. The intersection crash rate is 0.39 per million vehicles entering the intersection. The state crash rate average is 0.87 and the crash rate average for this area is 0.66.

Bonnie Polin, director of the DOT Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) said that the intersection is not eligible for HSIP funding because it lacks the volume and intensity of accidents required. Therefore any reconstruction remedy for the intersection would have to be managed in coordination with the MVC to secure funding.

Mr. Christensen said, “What the data does not show is the close calls.”

Mr. Knabel agreed, “It is a very real problem. It is not one that is dramatized by the statistics alone. The fact that there has not been a horrendous accident there is a minor miracle. It is just waiting to happen.”

Mrs. Jones, in letters submitted to the DOT, described actual driver behavior at the intersection: “More than a few people do not stop at the stop sign on Old County Road. Motorists routinely speed along that section of State Road, motorists routinely cut across the road too early when they wish to enter Old County Road from State Road moving South. Signage indicating an impending dangerous intersection would help.”

A long-term redesign of the intersection has been under consideration since 2007, when the DOT submitted two proposals to the town that were rejected. In June, the MVC presented three alternative designs to the selectmen, and these are currently under consideration. However, once a final redesign of the intersection is selected, it is estimated that any state funding appropriation for road work on Martha’s Vineyard would place the project three or four years away.

During the town hall meeting, Mr. London said that long-term solution needs to be carefully considered. “Often the temptation to create a wider roadway is perceived as being safer, when in fact creating a calming traffic pattern that slows people down creates greater safety.”

Mr. London said that a large number of the fatalities on Martha’s Vineyard have been on those roads with the wider shoulders and the longer straightaways. “The wide open roadways induce people to speed up and drag race and do the kinds of things that can get them into more trouble. Whereas those areas where we scale down the roadway seem to be generally safer,” he said.

While at the site, state officials, easily identifiable as they were wearing bright orange and yellow safety vests and safety helmets with clipboards in hand, were confronted by Robert Kenney of Chilmark. Mr. Kenney spotted the 25 people standing about the intersection and pulled his car over to comment.

Mr. Kenney called the intersection a “recipe for disaster.” He asked the state officials why nothing had been done to correct the situation and suggested, “The town should close the road and make everyone drive all the way around, and then everyone would complain and the state would do something.”

Following the site visit, the state and local officials returned to town hall for a few more minutes of discussion before concluding the process.

“I think it was very productive and we will be seeing some results fairly quickly as we made it clear to the DOT that we want an interim solution as soon as possible and we meant it. I think they heard us loud and clear,” Mr. Knabel said afterwards.

An initial report of the audit will be sent to town officials within five business days. Reactions and amendments are due back to the DOT within another five working days. A final report with recommended short, mid- and long-term solutions for the intersection’s safety problems may be expected within another five business days.