Oak Bluffs roundabout plans get mixed reviews

A design public hearing held last week by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Highway Division aired Islanders’ concerns about the impacts and need for a roundabout at the four-way stop intersection of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road at Airport and Barnes Roads.

Reactions to the draft plans for the roundabout were mixed among the 25 people who attended the hearing at the Oak Bluffs Library. However, the representatives from MassDOT and Greenman-Pedersen Inc. (GPI), the company awarded the design contract, did their homework and came well prepared in anticipation of the public’s questions. Throughout the hearing they emphasized that improvements to the intersection are driven by safety concerns first, and better traffic flow second.

The Oak Bluffs selectmen approved the roundabout project in 2006, following a study of possible options prepared by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) and several public hearings. The same year, a four-way stop was installed at the intersection in addition to blinker lights.

Construction was delayed until recently, when the state accepted the project for funding under the fiscal year 2012 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

Draft plans

MassDOT project manager Thomas Currier conducted the April 20 hearing, joined by District 5 project engineer Bob Gregory and Craig Sheehan of the Right-of-Way Bureau. GPI vice president John Diaz presented the draft plans for the project, now at the 25-percent design phase.

Mr. Currier said the roundabout project would cost about $1 million. Of that, the federal government would pay 80 percent and the state Highway Division the remainder. The project is scheduled to go out to bid in November.

Mr. Sheehan said the design requires four permanent easements and five temporary easements for construction. Oak Bluffs Land Bank commissioner Priscilla Sylvia said the land bank already voted to grant permanent easements for its property on three of the four corners.

Construction is expected to take about two to three seasons, or a calendar year, with no work done during the summer, Mr. Currier said. The intersection will remain open during the entire process.

Using a PowerPoint presentation (available at mvtimes.com), Mr. Diaz provided background, statistics that underpinned the roundabout choice, and the design summary.

In preparation for the hearing, he said he looked at concerns about the roundabout posted online by Islanders last week. An article published April 13 in The Times, “Oak Bluffs roundabout design subject of MassDOT public hearing,” generated 48 comments online.

Round-up of roundabout issues

Mr. Diaz touched on several of the issues most frequently raised in a power-point slide with the heading “What we hear.”

First on the list is “not another rotary.” Although many people use the term “roundabout” interchangeably with “rotary,” they are not the same, Mr. Diaz said.

Size is one big difference, given that a roundabout could fit into a rotary. How the two operate is another. Drivers enter rotaries at higher speeds and must merge with traffic, Mr. Diaz said. To enter roundabouts they must slow down to make what is basically a right turn.

In answer to many online commenters and several in the audience who argued in favor of a traffic signal, Mr. Diaz said the intersection does not meet the state’s criteria for one, based on federal guidelines. One of the primary requirements is an hourly volume that is consistent for at least eight hours a day, which is only present four to six hours at the Oak Bluffs intersection.,

A traffic signal involves more than adding some posts and lights, Mr. Diaz also pointed out. “You would be talking additional turning lanes at virtually every approach,” he said.

As to the argument for leaving the intersection as is, Mr. Diaz and MassDOT officials emphasized safety concerns. Statistics from 2006-2008, after the four-way stop was installed, revealed the intersection has a higher crash average, based on traffic volume and number of accidents, than the statewide and MassDOT District 5 averages.

One of the biggest concerns heard about roundabouts is safety for pedestrians and bikes, Mr. Diaz said. The draft Oak Bluffs design has “splitter islands” between the traffic lanes that slow vehicles down as they enter the roundabout’s one lane. Cyclists and pedestrians may cross one lane of traffic at a time, using the splitter islands as a place to pause. Cyclists also have the option of riding with traffic through the roundabout.

Although many Islanders perceive the blinker intersection backup as a summer problem only, Mr. Diaz said traffic counts done last August and September, coupled with averages from previous counts, showed that during the peak summer months, the volumes aren’t that different.

“There is significant traffic going through that intersection year-round,” Mr. Diaz said.

If using federal money, Mr. Gregory said, a project must be designed to last 20 years. With existing conditions projected out 20 years, the four-way stop would be over capacity or failing by then, resulting in possible delays of four to 5.5 minutes.

Public comments

Before Mr. Currier opened the floor to questions, he emphasized the project is not a done deal and that public comments are very important to MassDOT.

In addition to several concerned citizens, the audience included representatives from several Oak Bluffs town boards and committees, the MVC, the Land Bank, and Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA). Newly elected selectmen Mike Santoro and Walter Vail attended, as did veteran selectman Greg Coogan.

“We put in the four-way stop because it was a very dangerous intersection, and when we did it, we did it as a temporary measure,” Mr. Coogan said. “It really was a question of safety from our standpoint. We asked all of our public officials, police, fire, etc., to come and address the situation with us, and at our meetings they all agreed and told us they thought this was the safest alternative.

“Seeing this project move forward, I think it’s long overdue,” he added.

“It makes a lot of sense. I will use it, because right now I avoid that intersection. I’m afraid of it,” Ms. Sylvia said. As a long-serving Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee member, she also noted, “A four-way stop is not a safe intersection, especially for those high school students who are new drivers.”

Sandra Lippens, owner of the Tilton Rental property at the intersection, said the proposed roundabout would make it more difficult for people who live near the intersection to access Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

“I want to know why, why is it so necessary to speed us through, only to jam it up at either end, which is what will happen?” she said.

“You can fix this all you want, but this doesn’t do diddly at either end,” Oak Bluffs finance committee member Bill McGrath added.

“We’re not attempting to solve all the intersection problems on Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Currier said. “What we’re trying to do is make this a safer, better functioning intersection.”

Mr. McGrath insisted, “It’s pretty safe now.”

“While many people may be satisfied with how it’s operating today, they’re not taking into account that 20 years from now, there’s going to be more traffic and it will not work as well as it does today,” MVC senior planner Bill Veno pointed out.

Patricia Bergeron questioned the project’s cost and asked if it could be stopped.

Marie Laursen of Tisbury agreed. “I do object to this, because it’s $1.1 million to fix something that’s no longer broken in many people’s eyes who are not here,” she said. “I don’t get those traffic numbers; they just don’t seem right.” Ms. Laursen suggested the Oak Bluffs selectmen reconsider the project and re-think it in terms of a traffic light.

“Right now the project that is eligible for funding is a roundabout at this location,” Mr. Currier said.

Otherwise, the project would go back to square one and the town would have to start the whole process again, Mr. Gregory said.

Despite differences of opinion, several in the audience complimented the highway officials and Mr. Diaz on the hearing.

“I really do appreciate the presentation,” Ms. Laursen said. “I wish you would put this at Five Corners actually. That’s very funny — it might work.”