Martha’s Vineyard Commission votes 7 to 6 to approve roundabout

This photo shows the intersection overlaid with the draft roundabout design. GPI and MassDOT provided the photo at the MVC's request in order to illustrate the dimensions of the proposed roundabout compared to the current four-way blinker intersection. — Photo courtesy of GPI and MassDOT Highway Division

Updated Wednesday, October 19

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) on October 6 approved a roundabout proposed for the Blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs, in a 7-6 vote following a marathon discussion that ended at 11 pm.

The commissioners first squared off six for and six against in a roll-call vote. MVC chairman Chris Murphy of Chilmark cast a yes vote to break the tie.

“I’m going to vote yes to support the Oak Bluffs selectmen,” Mr. Murphy said.

John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs, Erik Hammarlund of West Tisbury, Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs, James Joyce of Edgartown, Doug Sederholm of Chilmark, and Holly Stephenson of Tisbury voted yes.

Christina Brown of Edgartown, Lenny Jason of Chilmark, Ned Orleans of Tisbury, Camille Rose of Aquinnah, Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, and Brian Smith of West Tisbury voted no.

The commissioners approved the roundabout with conditions for bus stops, landscaping, exterior lighting, and a shared-use path (SUP). SUP conditions would require design features to caution drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians that it is a major crossing, through a contrasting color and texture and/or a raised table higher than the road and path, and push-button activated flashing lights if feasible.

Although Massachusetts Department of Transporation (MassDOT) officials said there was no data supporting the need for such lights, Mr. Sederholm, who made the motion for the approved condition, said he would like the project’s engineers to review the issue again.

The commissioners also included a condition to locate the Barnes Road SUP crossing up to three car lengths farther south, to maximize its visibility for approaching vehicles while minimizing the times that traffic will back up into the roundabout waiting for bicycle and pedestrian crossings.

Last Thursday night’s vote followed a public hearing September 22, for the project’s review as a development of regional impact (DRI).

The proposed roundabout at the intersection at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven, Barnes and Airport roads, presently uses a four-way stop system and flashing red lights on all approaches. The $1.4 million project involves constructing a single lane roundabout at the intersection, with pavement reconstruction, sidewalks, drainage, landscaping, and other improvements.

Debate goes round

Mr. Sederholm, Land Use Planning Ccommittee (LUPC) chairman, kicked off the discussion with a synopsis of the committee discussion at a post-hearing review on October 3.

“We also discussed the impact of the roundabout on Island character, keeping in mind the proposal is for the next 20 years, and is intended not just for the Vineyard that exists today,” Mr. Sederholm said.

As the commissioners did during the public hearing, they again wrestled with whether the roundabout was about safety or traffic flow.

“The reason this is in front of us, according to the applicants, is solely due to the safety aspect of a roundabout versus a four-way,” Mr. Smith said. “All the selectmen, the fire chief, the police chief, everybody said this was all about safety. But we’ve had no testimony stating that a roundabout is safer than a four-way.”

Mr. Hancock replied, “In the written testimony we had from some other traffic engineers, they rated this as the best solution for this intersection.”

Mr. Sederholm said although Oak Bluffs officials focused on safety, he thought the project designers were focused more on the traffic flow.

“But I think the real reason to build this, if there is a reason, is to improve congestion at that intersection,” he said. “There is no other real crying need for it.”

Mr. Sederholm said he also has concerns about bicyclists and pedestrians, and understands Islanders’ concerns about the project’s aesthetics, which may be a negative.

“But you know, the traffic backed up at NSTAR, over 100 times a year, is a big negative, and that’s not the kind of Island character I want to see, traffic backed up to NSTAR,” Mr. Sederholm said. “So I think the way I’ve come out of this is, the roundabout is definitely needed in the tourist season. We could live without it right now, in the other eight to nine months of the year. We really don’t have to have it. But, will we be able to live without it 10 years from now?”

Mr. Hammarlund said he agreed with Mr. Sederholm that the increased safety aspect would make less of a difference than increased traffic flow.

“I don’t think that it is easy or accurate to discount the huge effect, either environmental or functional, that we have of people just sitting in their cars, and it only is getting worse,” Mr. Hammarlund said. “To say unless the project meets some arbitrary safety improvement requirement it should be denied, I think, is a foolish position, because that’s taking only one aspect of a large, complicated project with lots of pros and cons, and ignoring the rest.”

Mr. Jason, who was an outspoken critic of the roundabout throughout the DRI hearing process, again argued that it would increase traffic congestion and volume at the end-points of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

“Nobody’s talked about safety; everybody’s admitted safety isn’t even on the table,” he said. “We’re talking about cars getting from point A to point B faster, so they can sit at a stop sign further down the road longer. That’s what we’re talking about.”

Mr. Jason summed up the roundabout as “an abortion.”

“It doesn’t belong on Martha’s Vineyard, it is not going to serve any purpose, and we’re probably going to end up killing some bicyclists,” he said. “I think we should just deny it.”

“The argument that this intersection makes the traffic worse at the road ends strikes me as a false argument because it doesn’t actually change the number of cars at the intersection,” Ms. Stephenson said. “It’s like arguing that you need to create a traffic snarl in order to prevent one at the other end.”

The bus stops where?

Bus stops were another sticking point for the commissioners. The current proposed design includes six possible bus pull-off areas on roads that enter the roundabout with 60-foot long asphalt ramps for handicapped access, based on discussions with the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA). Ms. Sibley said she could not vote for that plan, based on the number of large paved bus stops.

MVC executive director Mark London said that since the public hearing, MassDOT Project Manager Thomas Currier consulted with MassDOT’s Americans with Disabilities (ADA) compliance expert, who confirmed that the bus pull-off areas could be scaled down from 60 feet to 10 feet long and still meet ADA requirements.

Mr. Breckenridge and Ms. Sibley said they consider landscaping a big factor in the roundabout’s aesthetics. Ms. Sibley made a motion that did not carry to condition the project so that the state is responsible for the cost of landscaping at the time of construction.

Moments of drama

After several minutes of debate, the commissioners took time to view an 18-minute video submitted by Clarence “Trip” Barnes, owner of a moving and storage company in Vineyard Haven. Although it was available online, several commissioners said they had not seen it.

“The public has a right to see it,” Mr. Jason insisted.

“I spent a thousand bucks and three days of my life so you people could see how stupid it was,” Mr. Barnes said from the audience.

The video depicted Mr. Barnes’s attempts to maneuver a tractor-trailer truck in a circle at the blinker intersection to simulate driving in a roundabout, and also around the small traffic circle in Vineyard Haven near the Steamship Authority. Anti-roundabout comments from Mr. Barnes and other opponents were interspersed between repetitive clips of the same footage.

When the video ended, Mr. Sederholm, an attorney, remarked that a judge would never have allowed it shown in court. “It has no relevance to factual information,” he said.

As the discussion continued, the commissioners voted to extend their meeting 15 minutes past their self-imposed 10 pm deadline. With some commissioners ready to vote, Ms. Brown reminded them that the MVC’s enabling legislation required them to weigh the project’s benefits and detriments. That led to the topic of Island character.

“It is not in character with the rest of the Island,” Ms. Rose said. “It has been described as an off-Island feature that isn’t appropriate here. I’m not the least bit convinced this is going to be safe, regardless of what the DOT said.”

“I always find it interesting when people talk about the character of the Island,” Mr. Joyce countered. “It’s all relevant to how far back you want to go. At one time, cars were out of character.”

Well past the initial 15-minute extension the vote was called.

How the roundabout came about

The Oak Bluffs selectmen approved the roundabout proposal in 2006, following a study of possible options prepared by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) and after several public hearings, convened by the town. Oak Bluffs public safety officials and the MVC’s Joint Transportation Committee, which includes representatives from all Island towns, supported the proposal.

The roundabout’s construction was delayed until recently, when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) accepted the project for funding under the fiscal 2012 transportation improvement program (TIP) for the MVC. MassDOT paid the cost of the roundabout design and will fund part of its construction, with the rest paid for by the federal government.

MassDOT awarded the design contract to Greenman-Pedersen Inc. (GPI) and held a 25 percent design hearing with an extensive presentation and public comment on April 20 in Oak Bluffs. After the hearing MassDOT authorized GPI to complete the plans.

With the roundabout back in the limelight, the West Tisbury selectmen made a discretionary referral of the project to the MVC in August. Under the MVC’s regulations, selectmen can refer a proposed development in another town for DRI review.

The MVC voted August 4 to review the roundabout as a DRI and to speed up the process, to avoid any funding and construction delays. Construction is to begin next spring. The project must get underway within the fiscal year that ends September 30, 2012, to use the TIP funds.

Divided views

Opponents of the project contend a roundabout is unnecessary, too expensive, unnavigable for trucks, out of character for the Island, and unsafe for bicyclists and pedestrians.

West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel initiated the project’s referral from his board. Asked how the roundabout will affect the up-Island community, Mr. Knabel told the commissioners, “I think it will make it more difficult for the up-Island community to get through this intersection.”

Others question whether improved traffic flow at the blinker intersection will worsen traffic at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road’s endpoints at State Road in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs Road in Edgartown.

Abutters said they are concerned that improved traffic flow from a roundabout as opposed to start-and-stop traffic at stop signs will make it more difficult to enter and exit their properties.

Proponents of the project, including Oak Bluffs selectmen and public safety officials, insist safety, not improved traffic flow, is their number one concern and the most important issue a roundabout will solve at the Blinker intersection.

“When the backup actually goes past NSTAR, for police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances to actually traverse that line getting to a call in another location makes it completely dangerous,” Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake said at the September 1 public hearing. “You have to make cars pull over, you have to drive in the other lane. So, it’s not about the time people are waiting…we’re talking about the safety of it.”