Transportation planning on the Vineyard
One of the biggest challenges facing the Vineyard, as it continues to grow, is, how can we move people and freight around the Island safely and conveniently, without undermining the distinct character and environment that are the foundation of our visitor-based economy?
Every three years, we update our answers to this question by revising the Vineyard's Regional Transportation Plan. The 2006 update process is now underway.
The Vineyard today faces particular transportation challenges. Our network of two-lane rural roads was created when the Island's population was about 5,000, but now, on a busy summer day, we have 75,000 people.
A couple of generations ago, the vast majority of people lived in town and could get pretty much anywhere they wanted to go on foot. However, much of our growth has been dispersed around the Island, too far from schools, stores, and workplaces to walk. Many houses are far down rural roads, where the only viable access is by car.
We also face the complications associated with being an Island, only accessible by boat or air.
A last challenge is that, as a summer resort, we see a nearly five-fold fluctuation in the number of people on the Island. This leads to congestion, safety problems and straining of infrastructure capacities in the summer, whereas the small winter population makes it more difficult to maintain a viable, year-round transit system.
There has actually been a lot of progress since 1995, when a special task force on transportation outlined a vision for major improvements.
First is the success of the Vineyard Transit Authority, which went from a limited, seasonal service transporting 65,000 people in 1997, to an Island-wide, year-round, service that carried 769,000 people in 2005. Imagine if all those trips had been made by car.
Secondly, since 1997, the Steamship Authority heeded the results of an Island-wide referendum to limit the summer car capacity to the 1995 level. Although the number of vehicles actually carried has grown, the summer capacity limitation has led‑more seasonal residents to keep cars here permanently, and it appears to have discouraged many short-term visitors from bringing cars to the Island.
Thirdly, more than 86,000 people used the VTA between Tisbury's and Edgartown's Park-and-Ride lots and the downtown areas last year, as compared with fewer than 30,000 three years earlier, thanks mainly to the removal of short-term parking fees, the provision of free shuttle service, and coordination of schedules with ferry arrivals and departures.
A fourth improvement worth noting is the construction of pedestrian paths in North Tisbury, the second phase of which is just now being completed. Other bicycle and pedestrian improvements have been completed or are planned.
A fifth series of improvements is to roads and traffic. The last Regional Transportation Plan identified the seven most critical roadway locations on the Island. At some of these locations, there is serious summer congestion, perhaps starting to undermine the desirability of the Vineyard as a place to visit. It is only going to get worse, unless we do something about it.
Operational or physical improvements were made to, or are planned for, most of the seven critical roadway locations, including a series of improvements in the area around Five Corners, plans for a roundabout at the intersection of Barnes and Vineyard-Haven roads, and plans for construction of a system of connector roads in Tisbury which should relieve congestion at the intersection of State and Vineyard-Haven roads and on upper State Road.
In order to help with these and other transportation plans, the Martha's Vineyard Commission undertook an extensive program to develop information about the characteristics and travel patterns of Vineyarders and visitors, including surveys of three thousand ferry travelers and people staying on the Vineyard, and an origin-destination study of thousands of drivers at congested intersections in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. The Commission has worked with towns on a number of traffic studies, including the Tisbury connector roads, the Five Corners area, and the Blinker intersection. A study of the Edgartown Triangle area is underway.
One of the things we learned in the origin-destination surveys is that, when it comes to traffic, "we have met the enemy and he is us." As convenient as it would be to blame tourists, the surveys show that two-thirds of mid-summer drivers in the Tisbury Upper State Road area and half at the Edgartown Triangle are year-round residents and almost all the rest were seasonal residents. Only two to four percent were short-term visitors.
Only about one fifth of the people surveyed thought the road network should be expanded to handle increased traffic. Half thought that the ferry capacity for cars during the summer should continue to be restricted, even though it meant that they might not be able to make a reservation when they wanted (30 percent disagreed). Less than a third favored increasing the number of ferries to and from the Island; only a little more than a third thought that traffic lights are needed at certain intersections.
Although the number of trips coming to the Island has eased off in the past couple of years, after reaching a peak in 2000-2002, the population is continuing to grow and this will continue to make the transportation challenges even greater.
The question is what else we can do to better manage transportation in the future.
This update of the Regional Transportation Plan will focus largely on improvements to the bicycle and pedestrian facilities on the Island, including completion of the Down-Island off-road network of Multi-User Paths. Are there other improvements that can be made to public transit and to the roadway network?
Some proposals for transportation improvements will be incorporated into this Regional Transportation Plan update. The possibility for more substantial transportation changes will be discussed as part of the Island Plan process, now underway, and will be incorporated in the next update in 2009. Members of the public are invited to give their input to both these efforts.