The debate went round and round at a public hearing, held September 1 before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) to review a proposed roundabout project in Oak Bluffs as a development of regional impact (DRI).
But, the 10-year debate over the plan for the Blinker Light intersection, evaded a conclusion.
After about two and a half hours, commissioner Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark, who ran the proceedings as the MVC’s land use planning committee chairman, continued the hearing to September 22. The hearing record will be kept open for written questions and comments until 5:00 pm, September 22.
John Diaz, vice president of Greenman-Pedersen, Inc., the company awarded the roundabout design contract from MassDOT, provided technical details about the project and answered questions, along with project manager Thomas Currier of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Highway Division.
In a comment session that followed, several Oak Bluffs officials spoke in favor of the project. Police Chief Erik Blake made a strong case for the roundabout in terms of improving road access and response time for emergency vehicles. “For the safety sake of it, I support this,” Chief Blake said.
The proposed roundabout would be located at the intersection at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven, Barnes and Airport roads, which currently uses a four-way stop-sign system and flashing red lights on all approaches. In the summer the intersection is notorious for long lines of traffic.
“When the back up actually goes past NSTAR, for police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances to actually traverse that line getting to a call in another location makes it completely dangerous,” Chief Blake said. “You have to make cars pull over, you have to drive in the other lane. So it’s not about the time people are waiting…we’re talking about the safety of it.”
How the DRI hearing came about
The DRI public hearing was prompted by a discretionary referral of Oak Bluffs’s roundabout project from the West Tisbury selectmen in a letter dated 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.
The Oak Bluffs selectmen approved the roundabout proposal in 2006, based on a study and analysis of possible options to improve the intersection done by the MVC staff.
Construction was delayed until recently, when the state accepted the project for funding under the fiscal year 2012 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) for the MVC. 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.
Mr. Diaz and MassDOT Highway Division officials held a 25 percent design public hearing for the proposed roundabout on April 20. The presentation also included video simulations of the proposed roundabout and the existing four-way stop, for comparison purposes.
The $1.4 million project proposed by MassDOT involves the construction of a single lane roundabout at the blinker intersection, with pavement reconstruction, sidewalks, drainage, landscaping, and other improvements. The roundabout’s diameter would be about 110 to 120 feet, with an 18-foot wide roadway.
The MVC held a hearing on August 4 in response to the West Tisbury selectmen’s referral and voted to review the roundabout as a DRI.
What goes around comes around
Since then, the MVC received more than 30 letters and emails for and against the roundabout, public officials, and members of the public. In anticipation of a big turnout, last week’s hearing was held in the regional high school’s cafeteria, instead of the MVC’s small conference room. As it turned out, only about 40 people attended.
Mr. Diaz tailored his presentation to address specific written questions from the MVC a few weeks ago, as well as answering new ones from the commissioners and the public.
In response to a question from MVC commissioner Lenny Jason of Chilmark about whether a roundabout would increase traffic congestion at the ends of Edgartown- Vineyard Haven Road, Mr. Diaz said he ran a worst-case computer analysis that showed a negligible increase.
Since many Islanders continue to argue in favor of a traffic light, Mr. Diaz again explained that the intersection does not meet Federal and state criteria for a traffic light in terms of sustained traffic volume and that a roundabout is a safer option. A traffic light would be roughly equivalent in cost to the roundabout, Mr. Currier added.
If the roundabout is not built, TIP funds would revert back to the MVC and JTC, Mr. Diaz said. However, since there are no other eligible TIP projects ready to go on Martha’s Vineyard until 2015, the funds would be lost. MVC executive director Mark London said TIP funds could only be spent on projects for existing roads or bike paths, and not on Tisbury’s new connector road, for example.
Commissioner John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs asked about the roundabout experience for a driver, in terms of pedestrians and bicyclists. Mr. Diaz said drivers would have a clear line of sight across to the other side of the roundabout, and they only have to look in one direction while driving through it, which enhances their ability to see pedestrians and bicyclists at crossings.
The question of how the roundabout would affect the Island’s character will depend on how it is landscaped, commissioner Linda Sibley of West Tisbury pointed out.
Public and town officials weigh in
After Mr. Diaz’s presentation, Mr. Sederholm called on officials from town boards in Oak Bluffs, the project applicant, for comments.
“That intersection is an accident waiting to happen,” Oak Bluffs selectman chairman Kathy Burton said. “Before our luck completely runs out and someone gets killed, I think we should embrace the only improvement being offered to us, which is the roundabout.”
“I’m not sure whether this will come back to the selectmen for a vote,” said Oak Bluffs selectman Walter Vail, newly elected last April. “But it is my duty to say this is the right thing for us to do. Under my watch, if I didn’t vote for this and someone got killed, I couldn’t stand myself.”
“If it’s your family member that gets killed at that intersection, then it’s worth $1.2 million,” Oak Bluffs Community Development Council member Nancy Phillips said during the discussion, in response to comments from people about the project’s cost.
During the public comment session, Mr. Sederholm asked West Tisbury selectman Richard Knable, who initiated the project’s referral from his board, for his opinion on how the roundabout would affect the up-Island community.
“I think it will make it more difficult for the up-Island community to get through this intersection,” Mr. Knable responded.
In other comments from the public, Clarence “Trip” Barnes, who owns a moving and storage business in Tisbury, complimented the Oak Bluffs selectmen for attending the hearing and chided the Oak Bluffs residents who did not.
Mr. Barnes expressed concerns about the difficulty of driving a tractor-trailer truck through a roundabout, and took issue with plans for lighting, which call for streetlights at the intersections and not at the bus stops.
Madeline Fisher, who lives near the blinker intersection, said she collected 1,200 signatures on a petition against the roundabout in 2006. “I think people felt it had gone away,” she said. “Most of the people I speak to don’t want this.”
Sandra Lippens, owner of the Tilton Rental property next to the blinker intersection, is concerned that improved traffic flow at the roundabout will make it harder to enter and exit her property. “I’m sure we’ve all spent a lot of time on this,” she said. “The fact that stop signs stopped accidents by 50 percent sounds good to me.”
Susanna Sturgis of West Tisbury said she collaborated with Mr. Barnes, Ms. Fisher, and Ms. Lippens on red and white bumper stickers with the words “Stop the roundabout” that she handed out at the hearing.
Craig Hockmeyer, owner of Craig’s Bicycles in Tisbury, said he thought the roundabout would need traffic lights to stop cars for pedestrians and bicycles to cross. “If I’m riding a bicycle on that roundabout, no one has a required stop,” he pointed out.
Additional questions about the roundabout should be submitted to the MVC in writing by 5:30 pm on September 8 and will be forwarded to Mr. Diaz and Mr. Currier for a written response at the continued hearing on September 22. Email questions to the MVC at firstname.lastname@example.org.