Fatal bike accident spurs safety effort

Tisbury town workers erected bike route signs along Lagoon Pond Road and Skiff Avenue July 21, following action to designate the route as an alternative to narrow and congested State Road.
Photo by Steve Myrick

Tisbury town workers erected bike route signs along Lagoon Pond Road and Skiff Avenue July 21, following action to designate the route as an alternative to narrow and congested State Road.

Bicyclists traveling around Martha’s Vineyard face a daunting map. For every stretch of well laid-out bike path, there are segments of roadway that afford little space and no margin for error.

For example, a bike path follows Beach Road between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, another stretches alongside Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road, the Island’s main thoroughfare. But a bicyclist making his or her way through Five Corners would be hard pressed to find a safe route.

The tragic death of a bicyclist on State Road, heading west up a steep hill just past Main Street on July 6, has injected a sense of urgency and changed priorities for funding of road safety improvements and bike paths in Vineyard Haven and elsewhere on the Island.

With no alternative, Dina Dececca, 40, of Melrose was riding up the sidewalk beside State Road. Her husband and her two young children were ahead, also riding bikes, when she lost control of her bicycle and fell under the wheels of a large truck moving up the hill.

In the wake of that accident, abutters to the road took steps to caution bicyclists to walk their bikes. The state posted new signs.

However, significant structural changes to roads commonly used by bicyclists are at least three years away and could face a gauntlet of opposition over land rights, aesthetics, and the relative safety of bike paths themselves, according to Island traffic planners, town officials, and biking enthusiasts.

Those issues doomed a previous bike path project that might have provided a safe route through Vineyard Haven to scenic up-Island roads and bike paths.

Safety now

Some short term efforts to improve safety are already underway. At its July 20 meeting, the Tisbury selectmen agreed to designate a town bike route from Five Corners along Lagoon Pond Road, and up Skiff Avenue to the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Town workers put up signs the next day. Though the route is longer, with a very steep grade up Skiff’s Avenue, it bypasses the heavily traveled road where the July 6 accident took place.

A group of State Road business owners and Vineyard Haven residents that included Lorraine Parrish, Jenni Bick, and others put up small signs near the scene of the accident, warning “Dangerous road, walk your bikes.”

Later, the group made and posted signs reminding motorists of the 20 mile-per-hour speed limit. But the signs remained in place for less than 24 hours. According to Ms. Bick, Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) personnel removed the signs.

“They were nice about it,” Ms. Bick said. “What they said was the dangerous road bicycle signs are suggestions, but the speed signs are regulatory.” The state workers erected new official speed limit signs a few days later.

The DOT, spurred by urgent requests from Tisbury officials, repainted all the crosswalks along State Road to the town line. According to Tisbury Department of Public Works director Fred Lapiana, DOT officials said they do not have enough paint to repaint edge lines, but hoped to do that later this summer.

Beyond the Tisbury-West Tisbury town line, at the intersection of State Road and the Old County Road, intense pressure from the West Tisbury selectmen and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission convinced the state to place flexible stakes on each side of the intersection as a spur to drivers to slow down and be cautious at the fork. This follows an automobile accident there.

But not everyone is ready to embrace citizen action, particularly when it infringes on their rights to the road. Don Keller of Vineyard Haven, an experienced bicyclist, said that during one recent bike ride along State Road, while he was observing all traffic and safety regulations, three different people told him to get off the road and specifically cited the fatal accident.

He said he pointed out to the motorists that he was within his rights to ride on the roadway, and that there was no path or bike lane where he could legally ride. By state law, bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities on a public way as any other vehicle. It is the responsibility of the passing vehicle to pass any other vehicle, including a bike, safely and responsibly. Bicycle riders are generally prohibited from sidewalks.

Safe passage

Before the accident, plans were underway to create a safe passage through down-Island towns where gaps in the Island’s bike path network present a challenging environment for casual bicyclists.

An engineering study commissioned by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) presented dozens of options to fill the gaps.

At present, there are 37 miles of shared-use paths on the Island. Seven remaining gaps limit cyclists and pedestrians from advancing safely through the downtown areas of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown, and between existing roadside paths and the paths in the State Forest. Over the years, patchwork development of paths resulted in a conundrum. The places where paths are most needed — in the narrow, congested downtown areas near ferry terminals — are precisely the places with the largest gaps and where the difficulties of creating bike routes are immense.

Edgartown has paths that cover routes to beaches, and along major roadways. Only the heart of the downtown area is not covered by dedicated paths. Bike racks are strategically placed near the terminus of three paths on Upper Main Street, so bicyclists can walk into town.

In Oak Bluffs, bike paths abruptly end far from the downtown business district. Town officials receive many complaints about the Beach Road bike path, which ends near Farm Pond. Bicyclists must either cross over Sea View Avenue at a sharp corner, or continue on the same side of the road against traffic, to get downtown.

Up-Island, there are paths around the State Forest in West Tisbury, but none in Chilmark or Aquinnah.

Long and winding road

The options presented for a path through Vineyard Haven illustrate many of the difficult issues at hand. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission bicycle and pedestrian sub-committee settled on a plan that divides the path into eight different segments, each with its own particular obstacles.

For a bicyclist getting off a ferry at the Steamship Authority Vineyard Haven terminal at Water Street, the proposed route (see map) would start in the municipal parking lot next to Stop & Shop, go through Cromwell Lane between Beetlebung Coffee House and the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, across Beach Road at the crosswalk, between the Post Office and the fire station, around Veterans Memorial Park, down Causeway Road to Skiff Avenue, and up Skiff Avenue to Edgartown Vineyard Haven Road. Mr. Lapiana said he has some degree of confidence that short section can be completed this year, but there are many obstacles. Cromwell Lane is now a private road. The town would need to acquire it, pave it, and maintain it.

The town would need to purchase land between the fire station and the post office to secure rights of way. Negotiations are underway with the U.S. Postal Service, but funding is still a question. One section of the path around the park is complete, and voters at the 2009 Tisbury annual town meeting authorized $50,000 to finish another section. That funding came from embarkation fees paid by ferry passengers. Construction is scheduled to begin this fall.

The stretch along Skiff Avenue would likely involve eliminating some parking, narrowing of the vehicle lanes, and construction of a dedicated path.

There are even more complicated land-use issues for a proposed route from the existing path that ends at the Wind’s Up water sports shop, to Veterans Memorial Park, for bicyclists riding from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven. At its narrowest point, between the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard boat sheds, and the Packer Company fuel tanks, the roadway would need to be moved a few feet toward the harbor side of the existing road. The existing sidewalk on the other side of the road would be replaced with a wider bike path.

Easements are being negotiated with private landowners to route the path through the Tisbury Marketplace, then through back lots around the Gannon & Benjamin “Mugwump” annex and Maciel Marine, to the park. While town officials say landowners are cooperative, it could take years to get all the elements in place.

“The timelines are very, very nebulous,” Mr. Lapiana said at the July 20 selectmen’s meeting. “There is too much that goes into each one of those segments, in terms of design, permitting, construction, and money.”

Shifting gears

The MVC’s joint transportation committee, including representatives from each Island town, as well as others with a stake in road improvements, sets priorities for Island highway safety projects. On July 13, local officials detoured DOT engineers from a previously scheduled site visit, and walked along the entire corridor from the state boat launch ramp near the temporary Lagoon Pond Drawbridge, through the Five Corners, and up to the State Road business district west of Vineyard Haven.

On July 16, the joint transportation committee voted to shift road project priorities. Planning for the roundabout to replace the four-corner intersection at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road and Barnes Road, already well behind schedule because of delays in the design phase, will be pushed back a year. Improvements in the State Road corridor, including redesign of the roadway and construction of bicycle and pedestrian paths, will move to the top of the list.

“With the recent fatality down there, that’s kind of helping it move through the process a little faster,” MVC transportation planner Mike Mauro said.

Still, the process could take a minimum of three years, and perhaps longer. Funding will be an issue. Each year the Island receives about $400,000 to $450,000 in federal funds through the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). Mr. Mauro said a bicycle path from Wind’s Up to the Tisbury Marketplace alone would use up two years worth of funds.

Other state and federal money is available, including state Public Works Economic Development (PWED) grants.

Securing the funding often comes down to a matter of effort, according to MVC senior planner Bill Veno.

“You definitely have to have someone pushing the project,” Mr. Veno said. “There are all sorts of things that have to be done, design plans, construction plans. If you don’t do any one of them, it dumps you out of that year.”

Blocked paths

Mr. Veno helps guide some of the efforts to make bicycling safer from his post as a senior planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. He notes the gaps in the Island’s bike path system, especially the maze of narrow streets and congested traffic that greets cyclists coming off the Steamship Authority ferries.

“That’s too bad, that we can’t provide a system that people can come and enjoy the beautiful Island,” Mr. Veno said. “We keep telling them not to bring their cars. Let’s provide them an option that’s safe. That would seem to be a win, win, win, win, win situation.”

Over the years, there have been many efforts to create bike paths in the downtown areas, but Mr. Veno said they have failed for a variety of reasons. Local politics, land-use issues, aesthetic issues, and the relative safety of paths themselves are some of the obstacles that have defeated these efforts, according to Mr. Veno.

In 1991, planning began to secure federal funding for a series of projects to fill gaps in the existing system of down-Island bike paths. By 1995, much of the design work was complete, and funding was in place, including $400,000 to construct a path along the State Road corridor. But in 1996, Tisbury selectmen rejected the plan, which was by then bogged down in political squabbles with West Tisbury officials, missed design deadlines, a petition signed by 425 people who opposed the path, and an alternative dual path proposal.

In an article published in The Martha’s Vineyard Times, Liz Wild, a Tisbury selectman who supported the plan at the time, said the process was marked by horrible divisiveness and misinformation.

“There were people telling me they were going to file lawsuits, and they were going to sue the town and stop it from happening,” Ms. Wild said in 1996.

There is disagreement among avid cyclists and safety experts about the relative safety of bike paths. On the Vineyard, some experienced bicyclists shun existing bike paths, which are often crowded with slow-moving bikes, walkers, young children, and pets.

“I’m a strong proponent that cyclists fare best when they’re part of traffic,” Ashley Hunter said. Mr. Hunter is a member of the MVC bicycle-pedestrian committee, and has been active in bicycle safety issues on the Island for more than two decades. “My personal feeling is that we are far better served to think about roadways as multi-user roadways instead of trying to implement vastly inferior paths along the side of the roads. One of my big concerns is that there is this continued push to build more of the same stuff and not fix all of the existing safety concerns that are out there.”

Even in places where there is plenty of room within the town-owned rights of way to build a path, there can be significant opposition from landowners. Mr. Veno points out a granite boundary marker across the street from the MVC building on New York Avenue in Oak Bluffs. There is about 10 feet between the edge of the pavement and the boundary marker, enough room to create a bike path. But a glance in either direction shows front porches inches away from the right-of-way boundary, and lawns, gardens, stone walls, fences, and cars parked in driveways well over the boundary line on town property. The town has every right to build a path where the lawns, gardens, walls, fences, and cars now sit, but would likely face some angry constituents if it did.

Even before the process gets to the public hearing stage, however, funding is a large obstacle.

While there are federal and state dollars available for building bike paths and improving safety, there is little funding available for the first step in the process — design.

“Design is always a stumbling point,” Mr. Veno said. “That has often been a barrier. That kind of comes down to priorities.”