The new Oak Bluffs roundabout brings some dissenters around

It's still a matter of who goes first. Entering traffic must yield to the rounders already there. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

As traffic flows in, around, and out of the new Oak Bluffs roundabout this summer, some drivers likely have no clue they are circling one of the Island’s most hotly contested changes in many years.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MDOT) project to replace a four-way stop and red blinking lights with a roundabout at the intersection of Barnes, Airport, and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven roads pitted town officials, neighbors, friends, and even spouses, against one another.

A news article following approval by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) in 2011, after lengthy public hearing sessions and ten years of debate, generated more than 200 reader comments on The Times website. Some Islanders labeled the roundabout as foolish, a money hole, unnecessary, outrageous, disgusting, and a debacle.

But now that it’s built, some of its naysayers admit they have come around.

“I was one of the doomsayers who didn’t believe that it was necessary or that it would work,” Marge Harris of Oak Bluffs said in a letter to the editor that appears in The Times today. “It has been a pleasure to see and participate in moving through it so quickly. Yes, some folks are still learning the rules of the structure, but they’ll get it.”

On the up side

At a recent Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting, selectman Greg Coogan said he has heard similar comments from some of the roundabout’s more adamant opponents.

“I have had an awful lot of people around town stop me on the street or in the post office or in the store or wherever, and say, ‘I was really mad at you or didn’t think it was a good idea, but frankly I think it’s wonderful when I drive through that intersection now,” Mr. Coogan told The Times in a phone conversation on Tuesday.

The Oak Bluffs selectmen approved the roundabout proposal in 2006, following a study of possible options and several public hearings. Mr. Coogan, who served on the board at that time, became the subject of personal attacks in comments on The Times website and in letters to the editor during the MVC’s review.

“I haven’t had a single person say anything negative,” Mr. Coogan said of his most recent encounters with the public. ” And it’s amazing how people who were so negative at one point and said something to me or wrote a letter to the editor, and felt so strongly against it have said they have accepted the change and think it’s a good thing.”

“A few even joked that they have driven around the roundabout just for fun,” Mr. Coogan said. “People who used to avoid that intersection in the summer, including me because I didn’t want to wait in the line of backed-up traffic, tell me they’ve back to it. It’s nice to see it working so well.”

The MVC public process ended with an October 6, 2011 vote to approve the project. Chairman Chris Murphy of Chilmark broke a tie for a 7-6 majority.

In a phone call with The Times on Tuesday, Mr. Murphy, who also took a lot of heat from roundabout opponents for his stance, said he frequently gets favorable comments now about the roundabout.

“What’s fun is to hear from people who phrase it in a certain way so that what they mean is, ‘Boy, was I wrong,’ without really saying that,” Mr. Murphy said with a laugh. “Someone will say, ‘I took the round about the other day, and it actually worked.’ And what they really are saying is, I never thought it would work and it does.”

The debate over the roundabout included predictions that large trucks would be unable to navigate the turn. Greg Carroll, Carroll’s Trucking general manager, said tractor-trailer trucks traveling straight through the roundabout between Vineyard and Edgartown have had no issues. But trucks that must make a left turn to travel between Vineyard Haven and the airport, for example, drive up on the unfinished center’s granite curbing. “We’ve experienced some extreme tire wear,” he said. “My understanding is there is going to be another elevation of pavement coming. For the most part, it works.”

In terms of the roundabout’s pros and cons, Mr. Carroll added, “It’s nowhere near as negative as people thought it might be.”

Just say no

A vote by the MVC to rescind the roundabout’s approval on November 3, 2011, failed in another close vote. Every town except Oak Bluffs opposed the project in a non-binding referendum question on spring ballots in 2012. Oak Bluffs voters approved the project in a non-binding voice vote at their town meeting.

The towns of West Tisbury and Edgartown joined to appeal the MVC decision in court, but eventually withdrew that lawsuit. What the town officials learned from their lawyers at Goulston & Storrs, at a shared cost of approximately $34,000, is that regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, the MDOT could move ahead with its plans. Construction began last spring and drivers began rounding the new roundabout on April 23.

Not swayed

Despite the accolades, two of the roundabout’s strongest opponents remain unconvinced.

West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel initiated the roundabout’s referral to the MVC in 2011 for review as a development of regional impact (DRI).

At the project’s first public hearing session on September 1, 2011, MVC hearing chairman Douglas Sederholm asked Mr. Knabel for his opinion on how the roundabout would affect the up-Island community. “I think it will make it more difficult for the up-Island community to get through this intersection,” Mr. Knabel said.

In a phone conversation with The Times on Monday, Mr. Knabel said he has not changed his mind.

“I always thought it was not a good idea and I still don’t think it was a good idea,” Mr. Knabel said. “I don’t think it was a good way to spend the money.”

“Other than that, the actual traffic through the intersection seems less than it had been,” he added. “That’s because big trucks don’t go through it anymore, because they have trouble negotiating it.”

Mr. Knabel said he based that opinion on his own observations that trucks are traveling through West Tisbury or going along Beach Road to avoid the intersection.

“Everybody says it works; of course it works,” he said. “With the traffic volume going through there now, it works fine. Regardless, that misses the point, which is that it wasn’t necessary in the first place. I still feel that way.”

Madeline Fisher of Edgartown, newly elected to the MVC last April, collected 1,200 signatures on a petition against the roundabout in 2006. She took up her opposition again at the MVC’s public hearings five years later, citing the project’s impact on the Island’s rural character as one of her chief concerns.

“When I hear someone say it’s working, it’s like someone put their fingernails across a chalkboard for me,” Ms. Fisher said in a phone conversation with The Times Tuesday. “Because it wasn’t just the fact that the intersection would jam up for those eight weeks every summer; it’s more about what are we aiming for, for Martha’s Vineyard in general. I feel it’s very overbuilt. There’s a lot about it I don’t like. I think it’s a lot of granite and pavement, and just a maze of traffic swirling through.”

Owner of the Fisher Gallery on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, Ms. Fisher said she has definitely noticed a change in the road’s dynamic since the roundabout was built.

“What’s happening is traffic is getting through faster and ending up at the other end faster,” she explained. “The word that keeps coming to mind for me is myopic, because looking at just that one spot, yes, you’re getting through and ending up at four different ends faster. But a lot of people who live on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road are talking about the fact it’s created this non-stop series of cars coming along, and they can’t get out. With stop signs at the intersection, there were intervals in the traffic.”

Work on the Oak Bluffs roundabout project will resume in the fall to complete the finishing touches, like landscaping, Mr. Coogan told The Times.

The $1.4 million project involved the construction of a single lane roundabout at the intersection, with pavement reconstruction, sidewalks, drainage, landscaping, and other improvements. MassDOT paid the cost of the roundabout design and also funded part of its construction, with the rest paid for by the federal government.