State governs tour bus restrictions
Vineyard tour buses are coming under fire from several Island towns, whose officials and residents have discussed putting more restrictions on where the buses may travel.
The issue of restricting tour buses on East Chop Drive in Oak Bluffs has arisen many times, out of residents' concerns about erosion. West Tisbury selectmen recently discussed, for the second time in less than a year, heavy bus traffic on Music Street. They recently sent a letter to the local tour bus company asking it not to use Music Street and Panhandle Road.
Chilmark has long limited buses from going into Menemsha in July and August, and has never licensed the local tour bus company to use Middle Road, where a sign prohibiting buses has been posted for many years. Aquinnah has considered restrictions as well.
A sign prohibits buses on Middle Road, but it may not be legal. Photo by Susan Vaughn
The local licensing restrictions apply only to sightseeing companies of which there is just one on the Vineyard. Island Transport operates Martha's Vineyard Sightseeing buses and has had street licenses from all six towns for many years to operate the buses on specified, regular routes.
Island Transport owner Scott Dario said he has cooperated with the road restrictions for years, but finds further attempts to restrict his operation "disheartening and discouraging." As someone who grew up on the Vineyard and is trying to make his living through tourism, he said he has seen a change in attitude among the year-round and even seasonal residents about the Island.
"They no longer want to share it," Mr. Dario said. "The Island has maintained itself through tourism."
Through his business, he said, he is trying to provide the most positive experience possible for visitors. "I'm trying to be an ambassador of the Island."
The issue is compounded by the fact that local regulations regarding tour buses are sometimes at odds with the state agencies that regulate the roads and buses. Massachusetts Highway Department regulations on vehicle exclusions apply to all public roads, but do not apply to tour buses, MassHighway spokesman Eric Abel said. Such exclusions usually apply to heavy equipment and trucks over a certain weight using a residential street, he said. He knows of no restrictions on tour buses.
If a town wanted to restrict vehicle access to a certain road, it would have to contact Mass Highway, which would conduct a study on the vehicle's impact on a road and a neighborhood before allowing an exclusion, Mr. Abel said. The exclusion rules do not apply to private roads.
The newly created Department of Public Utilities issues charter licenses for all charter and sightseeing buses, according to Tim Shevlin, executive director of DPU. Charter buses, which are usually hired for special functions or groups, do not have regular routes, he said, while sightseeing bus companies have to specify the roads they will use before getting their licenses.
If a town denies a company a license, the company may appeal to the DPU, Mr. Shevlin said. Cities and towns may also restrict certain roads from buses if they have good reasons, such as safety, he said.
All tour bus companies must go through DPU's annual licensing procedure, which includes inspection of vehicles, fitness of drivers, insurance, and other strict requirements, Mr. Shevlin said.
Despite all the talk in the towns about restricting his buses, Mr. Dario said he has had little to no communication from any of the towns this summer. He had not received the most recent letter from West Tisbury, but did get a letter from the town last fall asking him to limit the bus runs on Music Street as a result of residents' complaints.
West Tisbury selectman Dianne Powers, who lives on Music Street, was the most vocal about the local tour buses at a recent meeting, saying they operate too many hours a day, and the residential street is not designed for heavy traffic. She suggested Music Street be off limits to the buses.
Mr. Dario's license to operate in West Tisbury has been in place since 1978 and he is limited to only state roads, West Tisbury executive secretary Jennifer Rand said. He was allowed to use other roads such as Music Street because there hadn't been a problem previously, she said.
Claims from some officials that Aquinnah has been charging buses to park at the Gay Head cliffs are false, Mr. Dario said. He has never been charged to park there, although he said his buses are making fewer trips to Aquinnah as a result of "a tremendous decrease" in his business this summer. He is now offering two tours instead of just one to all six towns. A new four-town tour excludes Chilmark and Aquinnah.
"There is most certainly a big drop in tourism," Mr. Dario said. He said he has seen a drastic change in the number of day-trippers who use the buses.
Although Oak Bluffs selectmen and residents have talked about restricting East Chop Drive to buses, Mr. Dario said that road is not on his regular bus route, and the buses only go on it occasionally when they are transporting a wedding party to the lighthouse. When he does have a wedding function and must travel on one of the restricted roads, Mr. Dario said he asks town officials' permission.
Michael Dutton, Oak Bluffs town administrator, said the town has no restrictions on the tour buses, because the licensing procedure makes it difficult to do that. He said residents of some small neighborhoods have asked the bus company directly to avoid their streets, and the company has tried to accommodate them.
The residents of East Chop Drive are concerned about erosion on the shore road and are trying to figure out a way to limit tour buses, Mr. Dutton said. The residents' direct requests of the company are more successful than town restrictions, he said.
In Chilmark, Mr. Dario said he never drives his buses on Middle Road unless for a special function because he has never been licensed to use the road. He said he also cooperates with Chilmark police, who restrict all tour buses from going into Menemsha during July and August.
The reason for the Menemsha restriction is that buses cannot turn around in the parking lot when it is full of cars during those busy months, Chilmark executive secretary Timothy Carroll said. "We ticket them heavily," he added. The "no buses" signs on Middle Road have been in place for a long time, Mr. Carroll said, so long that they have become faded and nearly indecipherable. West Tisbury removed a similar sign at the entrance to Middle Road at Music Street and Panhandle Road for that reason, he said.
Middle road is too narrow and dangerous for the large buses, Mr. Carroll said. The sign at the entrance to Middle Road at Beetlebung Corner is mainly a reminder to the off-Island charter buses that may not be aware the road is too narrow for large vehicles, he said.
Mr. Carroll said the town is not prohibiting a class vehicle per se with the sign, but is trying to warn the buses of a hazardous road. "We're trying to discourage off-Island charter buses from using the road," he said, because they would have difficulty turning around or not crossing the center line, he said.
West Tisbury selectmen also noted at a recent meeting that they believed Chilmark's "no buses" sign was illegal.
Mr. Carroll said he did not know if the town had ever received state approval for the sign because it had been there so long. Mr. Shevlin said DPU does not deal with that aspect of the buses, and Mr. Abel of MassHighway said he would look into the matter.
Mr. Dario said he understands restrictions for safety or environmental reasons, such as erosion, "I have an impeccable safety record," he said. "You simply can't restrict tour buses or any heavy equipment," from the roads," he said.
All other touring agencies on the Island use smaller vehicles, such as vans, which are not subject to the same restrictions as the