Editorial : Regional impact? Absolutely. A smart plan? Doubtful.
Testimony at the Martha's Vineyard Commission's (MVC) August 4 hearing on the Blinker roundabout plan and whether to subject the proposal to development of regional impact review, referred often to 10 years of discussion and hearings that resulted in the $1 million project.
On the face of it, the 10 years of discussion, debates, hearings, and a decision by the Oak Bluffs selectmen to go ahead with the roundabout were pointless. The creation of a roundabout to replace the four-way stop we've learned to live with is a legitimate development of regional impact, and the review and planning for this big change ought to have been before the MVC from the get-go. It was never an Oak Bluffs decision to make, without regional review.
Hats off to the West Tisbury selectmen for referring the matter to the commission and to the MVC members for voting to subject the plan to full-scale review.
Perhaps the project was not on the MVC agenda because the MVC was deeply involved in the planning from the start and because MVC staff in general approved of the proposal. The argument that the MVC could not seize the project for review without an outside referral doesn't hold much water, because MVC staff and members are free to — and have — counseled town selectmen and other officials, plus uncertain private developers, whether and how to put matters in front of the regional planning and regulatory agency. That the DRI review is only happening now, when the MVC's objectivity on the issue may be a telling issue, is an organizational blunder that ought to be addressed contritely and constructively by the regional agency's lay leadership.
Likewise the argument that a roundabout is a smart use of $1 million state dollars to increase safety at an intersection that is already safe doesn't hold water either. The argument that the roundabout will speed traffic along may be more powerful, but actually the stop-and-go hiccup in traffic flow created by the four-way stop is frustrating only a few times a day, a few weeks a year.
Criticism of the plan for a roundabout has not diminished since the idea surfaced a decade ago. Whether the roundabout plan is the right answer remains doubtful for some Islanders, though how many cannot be accurately judged. Certainly part of the apprehension and distaste derives from several issues that need additional explanation.
For example, the key virtue of the roundabout, as described by its designers, is safety, but a review of the design and of the way the roundabout works suggests that the chief virtue is actually traffic flow. The roundabout allows throughput, and ancillary elements of its design attempt to minimize the safety hazards that result from traffic moving more briskly through the intersection.
This tension between traffic flow and safety considerations means that this $1 million construction project will be extensive as well as expensive, involving easements to enlarge the rights of way and a year's worth of construction spread out over a couple of years, because no work will be done during the summer.
The roundabout will require some driver education. Roundabouts are uncommon, and drivers may be unfamiliar with the safe techniques required to navigate such a traffic artifice. To enter roundabouts, drivers must slow down to make what is nearly a right turn, one of the designers explained last week. Today, with the four-way stop, they must simply stop before proceeding.
The planners say traffic volumes, despite the horrifying in-season clogs, are too modest for certain design approaches to the intersection but too high for others. That's confusing.
But, discussing safety for pedestrians and bicyclists who use the bike path that runs alongside the road and through the intersection, the planners have explained that their 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 places to pause — for safety's sake. Cyclists also have the option of riding with traffic through the roundabout.
But, doesn't that mean that cyclists and pedestrians will need to scamper when they can across a lane of traffic that thinks it ought to keep moving, then perch on a "splitter island" until a second safe moment arrives to streak across another moving lane of traffic? The mom pushing the stroller will scamper again to ultimate safety. We hope she's speedy enough. There could be stop lights too, so that this imaginary mom pushes a button on the light post, stopping all traffic. But then there go the throughput dreams.
One of the best features of the four-way stop today is that cyclists — and strollers, joggers, in-line skaters, and lots of others — using the bike path encounter the line of traffic crossing their path when it is stopped. The cyclist can elect to cross, and the driver must choose to stay stopped while the cyclist crosses in front. It's not confusing.
What is confusing too is the logical suspicion that, although traffic will flow pretty quickly through the roundabout, at the end of the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven road, in the high season, speedy throughput shuts down. Hurry up and wait. For a million dollars.
The roundabout plan may be the right plan — economic, safe, fluid — but the case for the wisdom of it has not been made. That's the MVC's job.