Change for the better


August on the Vineyard is the peak season for the vehicular misery we endure for two months because relieving it involves a trade-off we’re unwilling to make: changes to the Island road system that would damage the rural character of this place all year.

We all know the trouble spots, and we plan our errands around strategies designed to avoid them: Five Corners in Tisbury and the corridor from there up to Look Street; the Triangle in Edgartown and the whole miserable stretch from the veterinary clinic outside town past the Stop & Shop on Upper Main.

One notorious trouble spot has been erased from summer’s traffic equation, thanks to the Oak Bluffs Roundabout, which has accomplished everything the traffic engineers promised without causing any of the harm its critics loudly predicted. What is most disturbing, looking back on the whole public controversy over the Roundabout — and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s cliffhanger votes on the project — is how close we came to not building it.

Despite assurances from the traffic engineers that the roundabout was exactly the right tool for easing congestion at the Blinker, the commission needed tie-breaker votes on more than one occasion before it finally approved the project. Two Island towns spent taxpayer dollars trying to block the project. One up-Island candidate went so far as to run for an MVC seat on an anti-Roundabout platform.

How could so many people have been so wrong about a project that has turned out to be so right?

The Roundabout controversy, in retrospect, reads best as a parable of how our community’s greatest strength, in certain circumstances, can also be a weakness: the Vineyard’s deep-seated and stubborn resistance to change.

The suspicion that the highest ground in any political debate is to oppose change has been a recurring theme in Island life, and on the whole it has served us well. Our success in preserving the best of the Island’s past — the rural character of our roadways, our unspoiled open spaces, the unique architectural character of the six towns, the human connectedness in our communities — has been central in sustaining the quality of life here.

But when that instinct to resist change becomes a gut response, a substitute for critical thinking, we risk saying no to improvements simply because they’re new, and that’s what so nearly happened at the Roundabout.

Those members of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and Island political leaders who opposed it might fruitfully review, on their next pain-free passage through the Roundabout, the process by which they arrived at their position. While not abandoning our efforts to preserve the character of Martha’s Vineyard, could we perhaps also keep an eye out for those moments when change is good?

The selectmen of Oak Bluffs sent a mash note to the MVC the other week, thanking the agency for its work on the Roundabout project. “Placed in an unenviable regulatory role on this project,” wrote town administrator Robert Whritenour on behalf of the board, “the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and its staff throughout the process placed technical data and review in a primary position over widespread public skepticism and unfounded negative opinions.”

The letter continues: “With our summer season now into full swing, it has become evident that the roundabout has had a very positive impact on traffic flow and safety, and has helped to virtually eliminate one of the Island’s worst traffic problems. As the landscaping is completed this fall, it will also be one of the most attractive intersections on the Island.”

This week, I asked Mark London, director of the MVC, whether any of the lessons learned from the Roundabout have immediate applications for the Island’s remaining traffic hot spots. Sadly, his answer is no: “The Roundabout seemed like a relatively easy fix to one of the main congestion points on the Island. But the others don’t lend themselves to such easy solutions.”

The MVC has promised the state Department of Transportation that it will gather data on the Roundabout this August. But in July, the Commission has been focusing first, quite appropriately, on the traffic in Vineyard Haven on roads near the Stop & Shop supermarket, which is proposing to double in size.

The supermarket chain’s hired traffic engineers, unconvincingly, have presented a 49-page report which concludes that a Stop & Shop two times bigger will have “only a negligible impact” on traffic in the neighborhood. The MVC, rightly, is taking its own independent look at the situation.

By summer’s end we should have hard numbers from the MVC on exactly how much better the Roundabout is working than the four-way stop it replaced. But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, we really don’t need a traffic man to tell us how well the cars flow.

As it turns out, looking left and yielding is something Vineyard motorists are able to learn fairly quickly. Learning how to preserve the best of the Island and still allow room for improvements is proving much harder.