Soundings: Cross-town referral

Soundings: Cross-town referral

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The irony of this situation is almost too rich.

Imagine the hissy-fit in town hall if Edgartown had planned an improvement to an intersection, only to see a neighboring town try to stop the project by referring it to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for review as a development of regional impact (DRI). Imagine, further, that the MVC approved Edgartown’s project — twice — and that selectmen in two other towns then persisted in their meddling by challenging the MVC’s approval in court.

Anyone who has watched Edgartown’s reactions to outside interference over the past several decades can imagine the howls of outrage. But when the shoe is on the other foot, as in the case of the Oak Bluffs roundabout, Edgartown leaders display no qualms about telling their neighbors what to do.

Remember that the question before the MVC was whether it should intercede to stop Oak Bluffs from doing something the town’s selectmen and public safety officials want to do — guided in large part by a 2006 MVC study which examined the options at the blinker intersection and found that a roundabout is the best solution.

We can argue all day about whether the MVC should have taken up the roundabout as a development of regional impact back in 2006. (This depends on how you parse item 7.1 in the commission’s DRI Checklist, which covers transportation facilities.) But the fact is that the commissioners had the opportunity, and didn’t, which brings us to this mind-bending moment: Here are the leaders of Edgartown, who regularly excoriate the MVC for treading on their municipal toes, asking the MVC to forbid Oak Bluffs from completing a project that only came before the agency because it was referred this year by West Tisbury.

We shouldn’t be surprised that West Tisbury, whose selectmen referred the roundabout project to the MVC, has joined Edgartown in threatening court action to stop it. A vocal opponent of the project is selectman Richard Knabel who, in a recent op-ed piece, managed to characterize the roundabout as “ungainly,” “invasive,” “environmentally destructive” and “suburban” — and that’s just in a single sentence.

Nasty adjectives aside, Mr. Knabel’s leading objection to the MVC’s approval of the roundabout is his contention that what the commission voted on was only the state Department of Transportation’s “25 percent plan.” He writes, “Does the MVC normally grant approval when the applicant has not yet presented a final plan? Does that make any sense?”

Art Smadbeck, the selectman leading the anti-roundabout charge in Edgartown, echoed this theme in proposing legal action against the MVC.

“The MVC has made a decision on a plan that is not a complete plan,” Mr. Smadbeck declared. “This was rushed through.”

Sorry, but these protestations don’t hold up in the light of the facts.

According to the Massachusetts DOT’s Project Development & Design Guide, a plan at the 25-percent stage is the standard basis for public hearings and review. For a 25-percent design plan to be ready, a site survey must be completed and traffic data compiled. Designers must develop the basic geometry of the roadway project and its landscape designs. Preliminary pavement and right-of-way plans must be completed, and cost estimates prepared.

The DOT’s 25-percent design plan is closer to final than many proposals reviewed and ruled upon by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. In fact, the DOT has already completed and filed its 75-percent plan with the MVC and the town of Oak Bluffs.

Martha’s Vineyard Commission planner Bill Veno explains that the main changes in the refined plan, when compared to the 25 percent plan, are “the removal of bus pull-offs, scaling-down the size of bus passenger platforms, and insertion of bike ramps on the south side of Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road, on both sides of the roundabout, that would allow cyclists to jump from on-road riding to SUP [Shared Use Paths] riding in order to avoid traveling in the roundabout, or jump from SUP riding to ride in the roundabout, to avoid using the SUP crossing.”

Calling the roundabout plan half-baked or worse is alarmist and untrue. But then, much of the opposition to this project has been at odds with what the White House staff of President Bush so famously used to dismiss as “the reality-based community.”

Every study on file with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission agrees that modern roundabouts are the safest form of intersection, and the most appropriate tool for a place like the Blinker.

As it happens, the state’s project manager on the roundabout is Thomas Currier, PE, whose family has had a place in Vineyard Haven for many years and who says he appreciates the Vineyard community’s concern for the quality of its environment: “The Cape and Islands, especially Martha’s Vineyard, are very near and dear to me. They’re sacred territory as far as I’m concerned.”

The DOT’s 25-percent plan “is really a misnomer,” he says, “in the sense that it doesn’t reflect the amount of work that’s been completed at that point. At 25-percent, we have identified the right-of-way needs, we’ve identified the environmental impacts and permitting requirements, and we have developed the design to the point where we know the footprint of the project, how many lanes we need, where the sidewalks are — we know basically everything about the project. From that point onward, it’s just refinements.”

What Mr. Currier finds most surprising, in the Island’s discussion of the roundabout, is that some people actually believe a traffic signal is preferable for the Blinker intersection. The need for a stoplight is unsupported by the traffic data, he says — and moreover, “To me, that seems so un-Island-like.

“This is a perfect location for a roundabout, and it’s going to work great. This isn’t on the edge of what a roundabout is designed for — it’s right down the middle.”

Mr. Currier’s hometown of Norfolk has two recently constructed roundabouts. In both cases, he says, “there was local opposition. They’re hugely popular now.”

Mr. Currier admits that he finds the whole process of MVC review — first triggered by West Tisbury’s cross-town referral and now facing legal challenges from West Tisbury and Edgartown — a bit perplexing. “You know, this is an Oak Bluffs intersection improvement project. If any town on the Island decides to improve an intersection, do all the other towns get to weigh in? It just seems kind of silly.”