Oak Bluffs takes speed limit into its own hands

The speed limit drops from 45 to 35 mph at the Edgartown-Oak Bluffs town line. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Two weeks ago, Oak Bluffs highway department work crews exchanged 45 miles per hour (MPH) speed limit signs for new signs that reduced the speed limit to 35 mph along Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road from the Tisbury-Oak Bluffs town line to the roundabout.

Michael Verseckes, deputy communications director for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), which has the sole authority to change speed limits, told The Times that his agency did not authorize any change in the speed limit for that section of roadway.

“A regulatory speed limit sign can only be posted in support of a special speed regulation,” Mr. Verseckes said in an email to The Times. “Such regulations are reviewed by MassDOT and approved by the Highway Administrator and the Registrar of Motor Vehicles before they are installed.”

Mr. Verseckes said that MassDOT had not been aware of the signs. “They were not authorized,” he said in a telephone conversation with The Times. “Only MassDOT can change speed limits, as a matter of consistency.”

The 35 mph sign represents a drop in speed for motorists leaving Tisbury along the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road. Previously the speed limit increased from 35 mph at Hillside Village to 45 miles per hour and remained 45 mph until just before the roundabout, where it drops to 15 mph.

The change in the signs attracted the attention of Jamie Norton, a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School mathematics teacher who owns a farm on Edgartown-Vineyard haven Road.

“It used to be a 45 miles per hour zone so I went over and asked them what they were doing, and they said the police had told them to put up the sign,” Mr. Norton told The Times.

Ask the police

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Richard Combra Jr., Oak Bluffs highway superintendent, said he placed the signs at the request of the Oak Bluffs police department. “That was done at the request of the police department,” Mr. Combra said in a telephone conversation with The Times on Tuesday. “We put up signs right before the roundabout and after the high school.”

Asked if he was aware that MassDOT had not authorized the reduced speed limit, Mr. Combra said, “I’m not sure, I’d leave that up to Lieutenant Williamson or the chief.”

Lieutenant Tim Williamson said that after consulting with police chief Erik Blake he instructed the Oak Bluffs highway department to change the signs. “There was a huge lack of signage along that road,” he said in a telephone conversation with The Times. “I spoke with the chief and went out with the highway foreman to place some signs. We were aware that, officially, we can put up all the signs we want but we can’t enforce them without a speed study.”

Lt. Williamson believes he was acting on behalf of public safety. He confirmed that he had not sought MassDOT authorization.

“Maybe shame on us for not getting a speed study first, but I wanted those signs up to get people to slow down, to stop people from getting hurt,” he said. “We’ve had accidents there with the increased road use. There are trucks coming out of NSTAR and Goodale’s, year-round usage of the ice arena, elderly housing, the preschool, the YMCA, and of course the school zone. It’s so busy. I think it’s time we had that road restudied.”

Lt. Williamson said that the signs were not intended as a speed trap and that tickets along that road could be successfully appealed. “I haven’t told people to target anyone, to nail people, that’s not the intention,” he said. “We just want people to slow down in a busy area, and if someone got a speeding ticket there they could challenge it, since we haven’t had a speed study yet.”

Not the first time

This is not the first time that Oak Bluffs officials have expressed concern about speed along that section of roadway, or taken action on their own.

In 2001, acting on a joint recommendation of the Oak Bluffs police and highway departments, the selectmen asked the town’s highway department to lower the speed limit approaching the four-way blinker intersection from 35 mph to 25 mph.

But that plan was abandoned after Mr. Combra, then assistant superintendent, learned that he could not post new speed limits without following state procedures. At the time, Mr. Combra told The Times, “There is a process which the town is going to follow.”

One year later, a 30 mph speed limit sign and a “Do Not Pass” sign appeared on a single post at the bottom of a hill just before the entrance to Goodale’s sand pit. MassDOT, at the time called MassHighway, determined that the sign was not authorized. At the time, Mr. Combra said his department had not erected the sign and it was removed.

Before a speed limit can be set or changed, it must be approved by that agency based on set criteria. Otherwise, said one state highway official, towns might post speeds based on political or economic considerations — to deter commuters from passing through a community or to snare unwary motorists in speed traps, for example. Or in the cases of West Tisbury and Aquinnah in the late 1990s, reacting to pressure from local abutters.

According to state records, the roadway is a town road and is posted at 45 mph for 0.73 miles from the Tisbury town line, at which point the speed limit drops to 35 mph for the next 0.34 miles.

Requests for speed limit changes must be made to MassDOT, which usually requests that the town or city conduct a traffic count and speed study. The agency then makes a determination on the need for a change based on that data.

State speed limits are most often set based on a measurement known as the 85th percentile. The 85th percentile is the speed traveled by 85 percent of the cars using a roadway. Traffic engineers assume that 85 percent of the drivers travel at a reasonable and safe speed.