Op-Ed: Roundabout – a moment of truth for the MVC

The roundabout application for the Blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs is not the first controversial issue the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) has faced in its existence, but it is surely a seminal one that could fix public attitudes, for better or worse, toward the regional planning agency for a long time to come.

When 13 of the 17 commissioners voted in a tie on October 6, on a motion to approve it, clearly the case to build the roundabout was not very strong. When commission chairman Chris Murphy then voted to break the tie in favor, citing only political reasons rather than the merits of the project itself, many Vineyarders realized something was drastically wrong. Not only with the project, but with the MVC’s approach.

On November 3, beginning at 8 pm, in its building on New York Avenue in Oak Bluffs, the MVC will consider a motion made by long-time commissioner Lenny Jason to rescind its vote to approve. Should the motion to rescind pass, and there is good and sufficient reason for that to happen, a collective sigh of relief would then be heard from Aquinnah to Edgartown and Tisbury. Here’s why.

While this ungainly, invasive and environmentally destructive suburban roundabout has some supporters, since its inception more than 3,000 people have signed petitions against it, including many from Oak Bluffs. The petitions were ignored, but judging from those who have approached me over the past weeks, at least another 3,000 would eagerly sign if given an opportunity. What I hear most often is the familiar, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I understand that new petitions are going to be circulating.

For some unknown reason, this overwhelming opposition seems to have been lost on the MVC. One has to wonder why? One commissioner, who voted in favor, told me before the vote that public opposition could not be factored into the MVC’s process and deliberations.

What?

Surely that can’t be true. If it is true, then the MVC has very serious problems with its process. Does the MVC really want to be seen, let alone behave, as yet another unaccountable and arrogant agency of government? That would be sad given the good work the commission has done to protect the Vineyard in the past.

Perhaps Vineyarders need to occupy the MVC and take it back.

Here are some other issues the MVC commissioners in favor should consider:

1) What the MVC approved is not the final plan. What was unfortunately approved is Mass. DOT’s 25 percent design concept. Does anyone really know what would actually be built, should it come to that? Does the MVC normally grant approval when the applicant has not yet presented a final plan? Does that make any sense?

2) What are the mechanisms to maintain local control of the project as it is redesigned and built? It is fairly obvious that the Golden Rule will apply, i.e., that the guy with the gold makes the rules. In this case it’s Mass. DOT that has the gold. Oak Bluffs has given DOT control of the project. Moreover, historically, the MVC has been weak when it comes to enforcement. What will be different this time? Let’s face it, we don’t know what we’re going to get and have to live with.

3) The diameter of a built roundabout is more than likely going to be larger than the 25 percent concept indicates. Regardless of what the state’s engineers claim, those who actually drive the huge trucks, not only Trip Barnes, are certain they cannot negotiate the roundabout under all circumstances in its current configuration. Kent Healy, a well-known and respected licensed civil engineer on the Island, has analyzed the existing plan and found that certain maneuvers by large trucks are restricted, which is what the truckers have been saying. So how much bigger will it get?

4) Safety is not a justification for this roundabout. Commissioner and hearing officer Douglas Sederholm has said that building this roundabout is really only about relieving traffic congestion. He voted for approval. Commissioner Brian Smith, citing published statistics about roundabouts, has challenged assertions made at the DRI hearing that roundabouts are safer than four-way stops. He called attention to evidence indicating the opposite, certainly when it comes to cyclists and pedestrians. He voted against approval. Indeed, the safety argument is extremely weak or, to be fair, contentious.

What is really disturbing, however, is that in approving this unneeded roundabout, the MVC seems to have forgotten its reason for existence: The overarching question for the MVC is simple: How is this roundabout an appropriate use of the land? So many Island residents believe it is inappropriate. Why is it that the public seems to have a stronger sense of what is right than the elected and appointed public agency that is entrusted with that responsibility?

Do what’s right. Vote to rescind.

Mr. Knabel is a West Tisbury selectman.