Blinker debate endures
Town and Island officials, abutters, and motorists gathered Thursday in the Oak Bluffs library meeting room to discuss a report compiled by the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) that analyzed the problematic "blinker intersection" on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Five possible solutions were presented.
Agreeing on what to do at the traffic-clogged junction has been a long and complex struggle, which did not end at Thursday's meeting. Between the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen and residents from many Island towns, everyone had a different opinion about what would be best for the blinker.
"I'd like you all to keep an open mind about the possible changes to the intersection," Mark London, executive director of the MVC, said to approximately 20 people who attended the public hearing. While residents and town officials have yet to decide on one final solution for the congested intersection, a temporary reprieve may be in store.
Selectman Gregory Coogan, a vocal supporter of building a roundabout at the intersection, suggested installing temporary concrete barriers to simulate the flow of a future small-scale rotary. Mr. Coogan said this would give operators a chance to test drive the unique intersection before committing to the full construction. Mr. London, who moderated the hearing, agreed.
"If we had the opportunity to show that this is not going to be a horrible thing - or it is - then we could get rid of a lot of that opposition," Mr. London said.
Mr. Coogan said he would bring up the idea of a temporary roundabout at the next selectman's meeting on Aug. 22.
The 34-page report was created at the request of the selectmen after they scrapped a plan to build a roundabout at the intersection in 2004, to replace the four-way stop that was implemented a year earlier. The board rescinded their decision to build the roundabout after a public outcry citing multiple traffic impacts and bicycle and pedestrian safety.
The report presents five options for the intersection - including the current four-way stop - and analyzed each for safety, delay and congestion, air quality, character and landscaping, cost, and public support.
Mr. Coogan and selectman chairman Duncan Ross said they are in favor of a roundabout, which would consist of a single rotating lane around a landscaped center, where cars slow to 15-18 miles per hour.
Mr. Ross supports a roundabout for safety reasons, while Mr. Coogan said it would ease traffic congestion.
Selectmen Roger Wey and Kerry Scott, who were not present at the hearing, are split on the issue. In a telephone conversation this week, Mr. Wey said when discussion first began in 2004 about installing a roundabout, his first choice was a traffic light. But after both the consulting engineer and the Massachusetts Highway Department recommended the roundabout for safety and functionality reasons, he said he is now in favor of one.
Selectman Kerry Scott said in a telephone conversation that she is against a roundabout, and that installing a turning lane should be the next step.
"We need to take it incrementally. I'm still not hearing from a lot of people that they want a roundabout," Ms. Scott said. "It just hasn't caught on with the public yet, and that's important to me."
Selectman Ron DiOrio said he is in favor of installing a temporary roundabout, and if that proves to alleviate traffic congestion and vehicle accidents, he will support a permanent structure. "You can't go to the end until you take that middle step," he said.
In addition to a roundabout, the other options analyzed were the current four-way stop, a four-way stop with a right turn lane, a traffic signal, and a traffic signal with turning lanes.
According to the study, the roundabout is the safest for vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, offers the highest level of service, ensures the best air quality, has the most attractive landscaping, and has the least impact on abutters, compared to the four other options. It is the second highest in cost, behind a traffic signal with turning lanes.
You can't always get
what you want
With "rush hour" backups creeping towards 20 minutes on busy summer days, motorists and abutters expressed strong opinions about the junction Thursday.
Some residents said the current four-way stop works fine, while others believe the roundabout would be a respectable improvement. Some are pushing for a traditional traffic light, and one resident said improving the public transportation system would solve the congestion problems.
"I think we're just going to have to join the 21st century and get a light there," said Oak Bluffs resident Buzzy Blankenship, whose comment drew disapproval from some people at the meeting.
David Whitmon, a member of the transportation committee and an avid cyclist, said a roundabout would not safely handle bicycle traffic.
In other roundabouts observed by the MVC, bicycle traffic merges with vehicle traffic, circles the structure, and rejoins the bike path on the other side. But in the Oak Bluffs location, Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road has a two-way bike path on one side of the road, which presents a challenge for cyclists entering from the east.
"I asked the board, and none of those members had ever ridden a bike through a roundabout," Mr. Whitmon said of the MVC Thursday. He said that as a four-way stop, the blinker intersection is the safest junction on the Island to navigate on a bike.
Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck said the four-way stop has staggered the flow of traffic headed into Edgartown, and thus decreased congestion at the triangle intersection. He added that anything would be better than the "mayhem that was before" when the namesake "blinker" was still in operation.
When residents expressed concern about increased congestion with the upcoming drawbridge construction in Tisbury, Stephen Berlucchi, the Dukes County engineer, chimed in.
"This is a future issue," he said, warning that the four-way stop would not be able to handle the increased detour traffic.
Mr. Coogan, who has been a vocal advocate for the roundabout since the board first voted to install one two years ago, said the four-way stop must be changed. It was originally installed as a temporary solution.
"It would be unfair for us to leave the situation the way it is," he said, referring to the large backups created on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road during peak travel times. "We have put the burden on people driving to and from Edgartown, and it is up to us to solve the problem. Even though it is better for [Oak Bluffs drivers]."
What is a roundabout?
Public complaints caused the board of selectmen to scrap plans for a roundabout at the intersection in 2004. So this time around, educational materials were presented to convince motorists that a roundabout would work in Oak Bluffs.
"Some people have gotten the idea that a roundabout is some nasty, terrible thing," Mr. London said.
The roundabout, as explained in the report, would be unlike major rotaries in Bourne and Orleans. In traditional rotaries, which Mr. London said are being phased out, motorists enter a multi-lane circle at high speeds and navigation requires "weaving movements."
The modern roundabout is simply a "revolving door for vehicles," he said. Automobiles enter the single lane circle at bicycle speeds and easily flow around a small landscaped center. According to the report, "organizations espousing more innovative, context-sensitive approaches to traffic management than the traditional engineering solutions often promote the use of roundabouts." The report goes on to say that in the past five years several hundred roundabouts have been built in the United States. Construction on a roundabout on Nantucket is slated to begin this fall.
Mr. London also presented a virtual reality-type computer program, where drivers could navigate through a hypothetical roundabout using a mouse instead of a steering wheel.
To further quell suspicions, Mr. London showed a video clip of a working roundabout he encountered while traveling off-Island. He said it compared in size to the one that would be constructed in Oak Bluffs. Residents watched as small cars, vans and delivery trucks slowed to "bicycle speed," entered the circle, and emerged unharmed on the other side.
Deborah Medders, a Tisbury resident, said she has lots of experience with roundabouts after living in Mexico and Scotland.
"They bring about a civility that rotaries do not."