Essay : The unhelpful roundabout referendum
A referendum asking only whether one is for or against the roundabout cannot provide a reliable gauge regarding the project. Simple yes-no votes are almost always biased towards the negative responses, regardless of the merits of the issue. A similar vote on a traffic light at the Blinker intersection would meet the same fate.
In addition, a no vote can mean a variety of views. It can mean that the voters see no need to modify the Blinker intersection, because they can live with any future delays and backups that might occur, or that they do not believe that there will be any appreciable growth in future traffic. Those who believe that growth is avoidable are deluding themselves.
Traffic growth. While there has been virtually no growth in traffic in recent years, it will start increasing with an economic recovery, whenever that might occur. Construction of new homes continues, employing many Vineyarders, and more and more seasonal residents retire here full-time. There is nothing to indicate that the long-term upward trend will not resume.
There have been many comments that growth on the Vineyard can be contained with improved alternative transportation and restrictions on the ferry capacity. Actually, the Vineyard has done an excellent job over the years in improving bus service (there are now over a million riders a year) and expanding bicycle paths. Some years ago, restrictions were put on the number of cars that the ferry could bring to the Island, and these restrictions essentially continue as reservations are at a premium during the peak months. In spite of all the actions, traffic on the Vineyard has grown substantially during the last several decades, as more and more seasonal residents keep their vehicle here rather than bring them on the ferry. Local car registration now exceeds 25,000, or 1.6 vehicles for each year-round resident, including children.
While efforts are under way to continue to expand bike paths and bus service, it becomes harder and harder to do this as the more feasible improvements have already been done, and further improvements often require land takings and substantial funding. We need to do all we can to improve alternative means of transportation, but we really need to brace ourselves for more traffic. We cannot keep our heads in the sand.
A no vote may mean that the voters see no need for immediate action, but believe that in the future, when backups become more severe, some modification should be made. A no vote, alternatively, may mean that those voters believe that some modification is required at this time, but do not think that the roundabout is the best solution. It is easy to say no to one proposal, if you don't have to justify an alternative. A responsible voter should have the following facts available regarding the roundabout and the alternatives.
Traffic impacts at the road end. The purpose of the intersection modification is to minimize backups by increasing the intersection capacity. As all alternatives, not just the roundabout, are designed to reduce congestion, they will have similar impacts on traffic at the ends of the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road.
Large trucks. Local truckers have made the point that their large trucks cannot go through the roundabout and stay on the designated pavement. They are correct, as the roundabout is designed to have a minimum size. However, the design includes a truck apron, which provides an area for the truck wheels to travel safely over the outer edge of the circle. This is a standard design for small roundabouts.
Bus stops, sidewalks, and crossing. MassDOT has gotten fully on board with a program to improve public transportation, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and safety. The proposed plans for the roundabout, therefore, include enhanced bus stops, sidewalks, and pedestrian crossings, which add to the size of the project and may make it more "suburbanized." Such improvements will be required for any proposed alternative.
The remaining two issues that realistically differentiate the roundabout from other potential physical solutions are the accident potential and the impact on the Vineyard character.
Accident potential. Comparative studies of roundabouts and intersections with traffic signals or stop signs, clearly show that roundabouts are much safer for bicyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles. The principal reason for this is that the number of potential conflicts is minimized.
Impact on Vineyard character. This is a subjective issue, but a very important one. Some people feel very strongly that the introduction of a roundabout will substantially degrade the rural character of the Island. There is a similar reaction to a signalized interchange. The roundabout will occupy a space only slightly larger than the existing interchange, but will have a landscaped area in the center of the circle. In evaluating the impact of the roundabout, it is important to consider the character of the existing highway, as the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road can hardly be considered a picturesque rural road.
As the Vineyard has developed, changes have had to be made to accommodate the continued growth. Many of us have fond memories of a more rural Vineyard, when Old County Road was unpaved, when one walked to Menemsha beach, because there was no road or parking lot, and when the shopping areas were confined to downtown Vineyard Haven and Edgartown.
While we might like to say, "Stop! No more growth," this is not an option. Therefore, we have to take measures to minimize the impacts of continued growth. In terms of traffic, if we are to avoid severe future congestion, occasionally we have to modify our roadway system. At the Blinker intersection, the safest way to do this is to install a roundabout.
A simplistic yes/no referendum is not at all useful in helping us to understand these issues and in reaching a thoughtful and practical solution.
Mr. Greenbaum, a retired traffic engineer, is a Chilmark resident and the town's representative on the Martha's Vineyard Commission's joint transportation committee.