West Tisbury selectmen press DOT over guardrail and intersection

Reflective traffic posts intended to increase safety at the intersection of Old County Road and State Road have a short life. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

West Tisbury selectmen grilled Department of Transportation (DOT) officials about the state’s decision to replace a wooden guard rail on the bridge spanning Mill Brook, on State Road near the intersection with North Road, with a heavier metal barrier.

The selectmen, their feathers obviously ruffled, also targeted transportation officials over the stalled plans for a new design of the intersection of State Road and Old County Road, where several serious auto accidents have occurred over the years.

During the discussion on November 14, Cape and Islands state Rep. Tim Madden, legislative liaison Nell Coogan, and a legislative aid to state Sen. Dan Wolf slipped into the audience.

The legislative contingent was on the Island to assess damage from hurricane Sandy, among other things. But on several occasions Mr. Madden added his own questions about the guard rail and intersection issues to the discussion.

The guard rail drew the ire of selectmen several weeks ago when DOT crews replaced the old wooden rail with a metal one, without notifying the town.

The wooden rail was replaced following a motor vehicle accident on September 26, when a pickup truck crashed through one of the wooden rails. State officials also plan to replace the other wooden railing with a steel abutment.

Cynthia Mitchell, chairman of the selectmen, summarized the situation.

“Recently one of the quaint and rustic wooden railings was plowed into by a vehicle and replaced by a lower metal guard rail, and it has engendered some reaction [around town],” she said.

Pam Hasner, project manager for the DOT, said state officials put a lot of thought into the replacement guard rail, which is made of pre-rusted steel held up by wooden posts. “The culvert is a very old granite slab with a minimum concrete cover; our options were very limited because you can’t bore into an existing culvert without damaging it,” she said.

Ms. Hasner said the older wooden railings also do not meet state crash test standards. “Safety is our number one option. Our options are very limited,” she added.

Selectman Richard Knabel said the DOT has replaced the wooden railings with similar wooden railings following motor vehicle accidents in the past. He also noted that the DOT has previously proposed plans to completely replace the bridge.

Those plans called for a wider bridge over the culvert that could allow for space for a wooden railing system or even a pedestrian walkway, Mr. Knabel said. “This really raises the question of what happened to the design for replacing the culvert with a wider overpass of the Mill Brook we had before us some four years ago.

“Since that time we don’t know what happened to that plan, and the old guard rails kept getting hit and were replaced repeatedly with the exact same design, maintaining the historic look of that particular crossing which many people in this town feel is very important.”

Mr. Knabel said the current design of the bridge is unsafe. “We don’t want to replicate the narrowness of the situation because that’s what’s caused some of the accidents and near misses that happen practically every day,” he said.

Ms. Hasner said she wasn’t aware of what happened in the past regarding the replacement of the guard rail. She said a bridge inspection team will come to the Island to conduct a site visit of the bridge, which could jump-start plans to build a replacement bridge.

“We are willing to reevaluate and look at it again and work with [selectmen], and if it needs to be replaced come up with something that is safe and visually appealing,” she said.

Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter said he disagreed with the assessment that wooden railings were not possible. “The thing that sticks in my craw is changing the appearance of that bridge… If you told me there were no alternatives I find that hard to believe,” he said. “I think it’s important to retain the uniqueness of our town.”

Rep. Madden said he was “troubled” to learn that selectmen only found out about the new metal guard rail after it had been installed. He also pressed DOT officials to take another pass at replacing the bridge.

“This has been studied to death, and I’d like to see the plans from five years ago,” he said. “The roads are busier, the cars and trucks are wider, and meanwhile there is no better place to walk or bike than the Vineyard…. I would like to know where the study is, and I would like to revisit it sooner rather than later.”

Ms. Hasner said she would try to locate the plans previously presented to selectmen. She also gave assurances that the DOT would not replace the other wooden railing without first consulting the selectmen.

Dangerous crossing

Michael Mauro, transportation planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said selectmen were presented with two plans for the intersection of State and Old County roads several years ago. The plans called for a change to the design of the intersection.

One of those designs created a T-shaped intersection and another created a T-shaped intersection plus a designated turning lane on State Road for cars turning left onto Old County Road.

Mr. Mauro said the discussion ended after selectmen rejected both plans. “The purpose of this meeting is to get the lines of communication back open and look at both short-term and long-term solutions,” he said.

Mr. Knabel said both plans would have created too much paved area and would also eliminate the triangle between the two roads where the town Christmas tree is placed and lit during the holiday season.

“The goal is to not speed traffic up, if anything it’s to slow it down. We’re not trying to get cars through that intersection faster,” Mr. Knabel said. “The idea of turning lanes and lots of pavement eating up that whole nice island, we’re not interested in that because it’s the rural character of the town and rural character of the roads we want to maintain.”

Ms. Mitchell said the delineators installed by the DOT, which prevent motor vehicles from cutting across oncoming traffic on State Road, were effective, but they were always intended to be a temporary solution.

Ms. Hasner said the two plans presented to selectmen two years ago were only first drafts. “We do them in-house, it’s very preliminary, she said. “We were basically looking for input and really they were just a talking point.”

Mr. Knabel said the DOT’s interest in changing the intersection seems to change from year to year. “The priority of this thing has gone up and down, and up and down, and we have no idea where we stand now,” he said.

Ms. Mitchell suggested that selectmen again meet the staff of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and get back to work on a plan that addresses safety without compromising the rural character of the town.