Tisbury indecision places Beach Road project timeline in jeopardy

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The Massachusetts Department of Transportation plans a makeover of Beach Road. — File photo by Michael Cummo

Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) supervising project manager Thomas Currier said Friday that it may be unrealistic to think that the Beach Road project can still operate on the originally intended fiscal year 2017 timeline. He said many steps remain in the process, and Tisbury leaders have yet to settle on a definitive plan.

“It’s becoming unrealistic to keep it in 2017 because the right-of-way acquisition process takes time, the environmental permitting takes time, and the design process takes time,” he said. “2016 [fiscal year] just began, and we generally need more than a year to go from zero to completion. There’s still a chance, but it’s becoming unrealistic.”

On Tuesday, Tisbury selectmen voted 2-1 to accept the so-called “symmetrical” plan for the comprehensive and long-discussed redesign of Beach Road. In doing so, they spurned the overriding sentiment of those who attended the packed meeting and a recommendation by Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) transportation planners for the so-called “hybrid” plan. The dissension provoked calls for a special town meeting in December where the decision could be put to voters.

Mr. Currier said that while MassDOT is still willing to work with the town to settle on a design, there are time constraints tied to funding.

“We’d love to help out in any way we can,” he said. “We’ve proposed several different versions for them and met with them several different times, and we’ll continue to do that if it will help finalize the process.”

He said the symmetrical plan is a “viable design,” but that the hybrid plan “falls in line with the greater vision of bicycle accommodation on the Island.”

Patience is at an end

In a telephone conversation Friday, Selectmen Melinda Loberg, the lone vote for the hybrid plan, said that the MassDOT is not willing to wait until December for Tisbury to hold a special town meeting as a means of determining the fate of the long debated redesign. The state has not set a specific deadline for a decision.

“The DOT really has tried to be very patient with our process, and they are now telling us that they are not going to wait, even to have a special town meeting in December, which we were considering,” she said. “They’re just saying, If you can’t decide, that’s fine with us, but we’ll just move on.”

She said that doesn’t mean the money will be off the table, but would be pushed back to 2018.

“I think it’s important that whatever decision we’re going to give them, we give it to them right away,” she said.

She said that leaves the town with the current vote. The “symmetrical” plan calls for the MassDOT to construct 10.5-foot travel lanes, 4.5-foot bike lanes, and 5.5-foot sidewalks extending as far as the Lagoon Pond drawbridge from Five Corners.

The “hybrid” plan is the same as the “symmetrical” plan from the Five Corners intersection to the Tisbury marketplace, with an eventual transition to a section with a 10-foot shared-use path (SUP) connecting to the existing SUP at Wind’s Up, and a future 10-foot SUP crossing over the bridge into Oak Bluffs.

The project has been in the works for over a year as public officials, transportation planners, members of the public, and MassDOT representatives have tried to come to an acceptable design, a seemingly futile effort thus far.

“If we give them the message we’re giving them and the town isn’t happy with it, when the DOT comes back to share with us their 25 percent design, I imagine they are going to hear a lot from the community,” Ms. Loberg said. “They will encounter a very divided community, and what they do with that as a result, I don’t know.”

Because Beach Road is a state road, the final decision could rest with state highway planners.

“Things are urgent, and we don’t have a unified message to give to DOT,” Ms. Loberg said. “But it’s their road too; they can always just make their decision and proceed.”

On Tuesday, selectman Tristan Israel said that if the MassDOT was unwilling to wait until December for a town vote, selectmen would stand by their 2-1 vote to proceed with the “symmetrical” plan.

In a telephone conversation Friday, Mr. Israel sounded more uncertain. “I think there will be some more discussions about what we’re doing,” he said. “I don’t think we’re quite at an endgame yet.”

He said he was still trying to find a middle plan. “I’m still trying to see if we can achieve that,” he said.

Selectman Larry Gomez remained firm while speaking to The Times on Friday.

“I still think the symmetrical plan is the best plan, at least all the way to Packer,” he said.

‘Baffling’

Amid all of the discussion of symmetrical, hybrid, and hybrid-hybrid plans, there has been no discussion of sending the road project to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) for review as a development of regional impact (DRI).

The DRI criteria include developments that “have such significant impacts on their surroundings that they would affect more than one town.”

Past DRI project reviews have included the roundabout on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road and the bowling alley in Oak Bluffs.

Ms. Loberg said Friday that if an MVC referral were to happen, the project almost certainly would lose 2017 funding.

“I think it’s really late in the game to make that decision, make that diversion,” she said. “The MVC has their own course and process, how they do things, and I doubt that they would be providing any kind of immediate response either.”

Mr. Israel said he didn’t believe a referral was necessary because commission staff have been involved every step of the way.

“We’ve been using the commission staff,” he said. “Bill Veno [senior MVC planner] has been driving much of the philosophy behind this project, which is fine; I have no problem with his passions or his beliefs.”

MVC planners support the hybrid design, and on Tuesday, new MVC executive director Adam Turner submitted a letter of recommendation to selectmen endorsing it as the safer option.

On Friday, Mr. Israel called the MVC letter of recommendation from the Island’s regional planning agency “baffling.”

“I found it extraordinary; I’ve never heard of when a director has overtly done that, to be honest with you,” Mr. Israel said.

Mr. Israel said he recognizes that the project will have a large impact.

“I believe the impacts are regional, but no, I don’t think it would be necessary to go back to the commission, because quite frankly if there are people who are saying that should happen, they’re saying it because it appears that we’re not doing what they think should happen,” he said.

Mr. Gomez said the Beach Road decision should not be up to the MVC.

“I think we can make our own decisions just as well as the MVC thinks they can for the rest of the Island,” he said. “Whether we pick a direction that turns out to be sort of wrong, or totally wrong, it’s still our decision. We made it.”

Tisbury’s representatives to the MVC had very little to say on the topic of a referral. Clarence “Trip” Barnes said he doesn’t know what can be done to improve the situation.

“It’s a working waterfront; when you start putting in sidewalks and stuff like that, it just makes work in and out of there very difficult,” he said. “I would just leave the whole thing alone.” But, he added, “if it changes things dramatically, it probably should be brought to us.”

“If it comes to the commission, we will certainly review it and do our best,” MVC commissioner Josh Goldstein said. “Until then, it’s the jurisdiction of the selectmen.”