Martha’s Vineyard Commission votes to review roundabout

A draft design by Greenman-Pedersen, Inc., for a proposed roundabout at the intersection of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven and Airport and Barnes Roads. — Photo courtesy of GPI and MassDOT Highway Division

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) voted 10-3 on August 4 to review a roundabout proposed for the intersection at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven, Barnes, and Airport roads as a development of regional impact (DRI) in Oak Bluffs.

The commissioners agreed to expedite the DRI process, to avoid any funding and construction delays. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) accepted the roundabout project for funding under the fiscal 2012 transportation improvement program for the MVC. Construction is slated to begin next spring.

MassDOT picked up the cost of the roundabout design and also will fund part of its construction, with the rest paid for by the federal government.

The proposed $1.4 million project involves the construction of a single lane roundabout at the intersection, with pavement reconstruction, sidewalks, drainage, landscaping, and other improvements. The intersection currently uses a four-way stop-sign system and flashing red lights on all approaches.

The MVC vote took place at a public hearing held August 4, in response to a discretionary referral of the roundabout project from the West Tisbury selectmen in a letter dated on June 22. Under the MVC’s DRI regulations, selectmen from any town can refer a proposed development from another town for DRI review as a discretionary referral.

MVC chairman Chris Murphy of Chilmark reminded the commissioners that the purpose of the hearing was not to review the roundabout’s merits, but rather to determine whether or not it should be reviewed as a DRI based on its regional impact.

Getting around to the DRI question

Over the course of almost two hours, the MVC also wrestled with two key issues, why the roundabout had not been referred as a DRI sooner and whether a DRI review would delay and possibly affect the project’s funding.

Commissioner Holly Stephenson of Tisbury asked West Tisbury selectmen Richard Knabel and Cynthia Mitchell why they referred the project now, instead of several years ago.

Mr. Knabel said they had assumed the roundabout was a DRI and were surprised to learn after the April MassDOT hearing it was not. He asked why the MVC didn’t treat the project as a DRI from day one. Ms. Mitchell said she thought the public needs education about roundabouts.

Commissioner Doug Sederholm of Chilmark, the MVC’s land use planning committee chairman, said projects must be referred to the MVC. The commission cannot choose to review without a referral.

Mr. Murphy turned the questions back to the West Tisbury selectmen.

“Really, the question is, where we are we going from here?” he said. “And your request to us, to have a formal hearing on this, my question to you is, how is that going to help the current project? It isn’t going to help. Here you have a project that’s gone through public hearings; if people don’t go to public hearings, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for them.

“Here we are today with a 75 percent done plan; the money’s on the table; they’re going to put it out to bids this fall,” Mr. Murphy added. “Should we jeopardize that, stop the works and go through a public hearing? I want to hear a good enough reason to do that.”

Ten years in the making

The roundabout project actually has been 10 years in the making, as explained by Oak Bluffs selectman chairman Kathy Burton, who was accompanied by selectmen Greg Coogan, Michael Santoro and Walter Vail.

The Oak Bluffs selectmen approved the roundabout proposal in 2006, following a study of possible options prepared by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) after several public hearings.

The decision was not made in a vacuum, as Mr. Coogan, who served on the board at the time, explained.

“We involved the commission staff from day one, who helped all the way through the process, as did the Joint Transportation Committee [JTC],” he said. “We have made this quite a public process.”

All of the Oak Bluffs public safety officials support the roundabout, which was a strong influence in the selectmen’s decision, Mr. Coogan said.

As to whether other intersections along the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road corridor need to be addressed, Mr. Coogan said, “We can’t solve it at this intersection.”

Oak Bluffs expressed their continued support for the roundabout project at a special town meeting on June 22, Mr. Coogan added. They approved a measure by a vote of 64-16 to spend $3,000 to secure temporary rights of way for the roundabout. No takings or permanent easements are necessary.

“I think we need to move on this,” Mr. Coogan said. He reminded everyone that Oak Bluffs volunteered to delay the roundabout project for a year to give Tisbury priority for TIP funds toward a sidewalk project after a bicyclist fell from a State Road sidewalk into the street and was killed by a truck last summer.

Following that delay, MassDOT Highway Division officials presented a design public hearing for the proposed roundabout on April 20. The hearing also featured an extensive presentation and a lengthy question and answer and public comment session (see “Oak Bluffs roundabout plans get mixed reviews” published on April 28 in The Times.)

What’s in the plans

As he did in April, John Diaz provided an overview of the project at the MVC’s hearing.

Mr. Diaz said safety is the driving factor in the roundabout’s design. The intersection has a higher crash rate average than that of the state and highway district, based on accident data from 2006-2008 after installation of the four-way stop.

Statistics demonstrate that in general, roundabouts decrease crash rates 70 to 80 percent, Mr. Diaz said. In response to questions raised by Islanders about why the state does not put a traffic light at the intersection, he said the intersection does not meet the state’s criteria, based on federal guidelines, for an hourly volume consistent for at least eight hours a day.

Although Mr. Diaz emphasized the roundabout’s safety aspects, many comments from commissioners and the public criticized the project as an unnecessary fix aimed to reduce the intersection’s wait time and traffic congestion.

Madeline Fisher and Sandra Lippens, owner of Tilton Rental, whose properties abut the proposed roundabout location, said they were concerned that improved traffic flow from a roundabout as opposed to start-and-stop traffic at stop signs would make it more difficult to enter and exit their properties.

Mr. Jason questioned whether the improved traffic flow at the Blinker intersection would worsen traffic at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road’s endpoints at State Road in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs Road in Edgartown.

Mr. Diaz said safety, not capacity, is the issue for the roundabout project.

Several of the commissioners were concerned whether a DRI review would delay and possibly result in a loss of state and government funds for the roundabout.

MassDOT project manager Thomas Currier said that if Martha’s Vineyard chose not to do the project, the TIP funds would go back “into the pot” and be spent somewhere else. However, as MVC executive director Mark London pointed out, Martha’s Vineyard does not have any substitute projects that would be ready to go, and the funds would be lost.

Mr. Sederholm asked Mr. Diaz when he would need a “go/no-go decision.”

“Any delay that we can’t get the 75 percent plans in by the end of the summer could jeopardize the project,” Mr. Diaz said.

Mr. Sederholm asked Mr. Currier if the MVC tied up the project and slowed it down, if the TIP money could be jeopardized.

Mr. Currier said the current advertisement date for construction bids could be moved back, so long as the project stays within the fiscal year, which ends September 30, 2012.

Ms. Mitchell said it would be good if the review and hearing could fit in with the project’s timetable, to allow the project to go forward if the MVC decides favorably.

Commissioner Peter Cabana of Tisbury questioned what additional information the MVC would gain from a hearing. He moved not to review the roundabout project as a DRI.

Commissioner John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs said that although he would probably be the first one to recommend a project’s review, “I would suggest this project has had 10 years of discussion. The town of Oak Bluffs had public hearings. I support Peter’s motion.”

Mr. Jason supported the DRI review and called for traffic studies at the two intersections at the end points of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Tisbury and Edgartown.

Mr. Sederholm said the immediate impact of the MVC’s review would be to push construction of the project off by a year, which did not seem like much of an impact, considering the roundabout is supposed to last about 20 years.

Ms. Stephenson asked whether the commission could expedite the DRI process.

“We know from history, every time we tell someone we will, that doesn’t happen,” Mr. Murphy said.

He called for a vote on Mr. Cabana’s motion, which failed 8-4. Mr. Murphy and Ms. Stephenson abstained from the vote.

Mr. Sederholm then moved that the MVC accept the roundabout project as a DRI and expedite the process. Commissioners approved his motion 10-3. Mr. Murphy abstained.

The MVC has tentatively scheduled a public hearing on the roundabout project for September 1.