Essay: No on the Roundabout – it’s time for voters to have...

Essay: No on the Roundabout – it’s time for voters to have a say

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Beginning next week, five towns in turn will vote at their annual town elections on a non-binding ballot question asking if a roundabout should be built at the Blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs. A warrant article in Oak Bluffs asking essentially the same question will be addressed at its annual town meeting, although curiously, there is no ballot question for voters at the subsequent election. Effectively, these ballot questions are a much needed and delayed Island-wide survey of public opinion on this long-standing divisive issue.

My answer to the ballot question is, of course, no. A roundabout should not be built there, and it is quite likely, given the widespread grassroots opposition, that many Island voters will agree.

Whether you support construction of the roundabout or oppose it, voting on the question is important, and I for one hope the turnout is high, regardless of the outcome. Whether a substantial no vote will change the plans remains, of course, a major issue. However, the larger issue is, and has been all along, that despite the Balkanization our six-town governance structure represents, we do all live on the same Island, and just about everyone uses the Blinker intersection, many on a daily basis. No matter where we live, what happens at this intersection affects us all. So, we should all have a say.

The arguments for and against have not changed much over the last eight years. Most Islanders know them well by now, and people seem to have made up their minds on where they stand. However, from the anti-roundabout side a one-sentence summary goes like this:

A roundabout, rotary or traffic circle (you choose) is an expensive and unnecessary (and largely unwanted) response to an almost non-existent problem that could easily be fixed with a much cheaper, programmable, seasonal traffic signal. Or cheaper still, a traffic control officer for the few hours during those summer days when traffic is heavy. Such simpler, more sensible solutions have gotten short shrift, and that along with the heavy and high-handed process that pushed approval for the roundabout through the MVC last fall has left many Islanders not only angry, but scratching their heads, and wondering, “What’s really going on here?”

The run-around on the issues of safety and traffic flow are a perfect example, and reminiscent of an Abbot & Costello comedy routine. Initially there was a major push to make safety at the intersection the justification for building the roundabout. When the arguments for improved safety were demolished — the accident rate now with a four-way stop is miniscule with only a few fender-benders a year with no personal injury, and there being no real data on changes in safety when a four-way stop is converted to a roundabout — the official justification suddenly became a need to improve traffic flow.

This is code for essentially speeding things up along the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road axis. Speeding traffic up, of course, reduces safety not only to motorists, but to pedestrians, cyclists and mopeders. Moreover, roundabouts are designed to slow things down, not speed them up. But never mind the contradictions.

With the traffic flow arguments demolished, the state Department of Transportation suddenly decided (as stated in the Boston Globe) that the real reason for building a roundabout was… wait for it… safety. Evidently the DOT never got the change memo.

Now with ballot questions in place, we hear from some roundabout proponents that the Island-wide referendum is somehow inappropriate, that the results aren’t representative, or that, unbelievably, voters are somehow unqualified to weigh in on the roundabout. How can such insults not lead to more head scratching and wonder? And quite probably more anger.

While I would be the first to agree that government by referendum frequently doesn’t lead to good policy or good results, a non-binding opinion survey, a poll, which is what we’re talking about, is a legitimate measure of how people feel. Precisely what is wrong with finally finding out how a large sample of year-round residents feel about the roundabout? What are these proponents afraid of? And why?

Yes, the “experts” have told us repeatedly, “Trust us, don’t worry, we know what we’re doing, you’ll like the roundabout after it’s built.” Never mind the arrogance, condescension, and paternalism such statements imply. The five petition-driven ballot questions and the warrant article in Oak Bluffs themselves are an expression of the frustration and anger felt by many. Literally thousands of Islanders have lined up to sign anti-roundabout citizen petitions repeatedly over the last eight years, only to see them repeatedly ignored by elected and regulatory officials. The deafness to public sentiment on this issue has been astounding, and now we’re being told an opinion poll has no meaning? On the Vineyard? Where everyone has an opinion and expects it to be heard and considered? Really.

Cynicism about government in general is rampant, and the manner in which the roundabout issue has been mishandled from day one can only feed the local beast. I would urge everyone to suppress that cynical impulse, come out and vote your opinion at your town election. Perhaps a high turnout, and a clear result, if it is “no roundabout,” will finally improve the hearing deficit that seems to be epidemic among our elected and appointed officials in Oak Bluffs, the MVC, and the DOT.

Richard Knabel is a West Tisbury selectman.