Oak Bluffs selectmen greenlight park and ride lot schedule

The board voted for a limited bus schedule for a service it has yet to fully approve.

Selectmen decided to take no action on a request to make Cannonicus Avenue a one-way street. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Faced with a tight deadline, Oak Bluffs selectmen voted Tuesday to move ahead with plans to create a town park and ride lot serviced by the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA). The critical question was whether to request the VTA provide service on a continuous, or a split, schedule.

Selectmen voted for a schedule with a break in service in the middle of the day, as opposed to a full schedule — service from 8 am until approximately 8:30 pm. The vote was 4 to 0, with one abstention.

Although many crucial details for the park and ride have yet to be worked out, including how much the service will cost the town, VTA Administrator Angela Grant had told selectmen she needed a decision from the town by Feb. 26, at the latest, to accommodate VTA planning and map-printing deadlines.

The goal of the park and ride program is to alleviate parking congestion downtown, in nearby residential streets, and along the bulkhead during the summer season, town officials said. The proposed parking lot, which is already owned by the town, is at the corner of Pacific Avenue and School Street, behind the Catholic Parish Hall and adjacent to the town hall and library. The proposed park and ride route would run between that lot and Ocean Park downtown.

A lengthy discussion, punctuated with contention and confusion, preceded the vote.

“The VTA recommendation was split schedule,” chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan said. “We have a much smaller financial hit with split schedule, which makes it more attractive to me to start with.”
The estimated cost for the split schedule is $40,000; the full-schedule estimate is $62,000, according to the VTA.

“I think we should start with whatever is feasible,” Selectman Kathy Burton said. “Edgartown [park and ride] took a long time to catch on, and now it’s spectacular.”

“We’d like to see a full-time service as soon as possible,” town administrator Robert Whritenour said. “But if we go full guns and we ask the regional transit authority to pony up $45,000 of state money, it puts big pressure for it to show ridership. With a split service, there’s less pressure for VTA to hit an immediate home run.”

Paying the bill
At the Feb. 12 roads and byways committee meeting, Ms. Grant said she was hopeful the state transportation department would contribute funding, and given its support of the existing park and ride in Tisbury, the Steamship Authority (SSA) is also a likely partner. As of Tuesday night’s vote, no discussions had taken place with either agency. Mr. Coogan said town officials will meet with SSA officials on March 4 to discuss potential funding. The Vineyard Haven park and ride has a $200,000 budget, and the SSA pays one-third of it. However, SSA officials have told Oak Bluffs officials they need to see a detailed plan before making any decisions. If neither the state nor the SSA ponies up for the park and ride, the town will assume the entire cost.

Selectman Gail Barmakian, who abstained, questioned the logic of the split schedule, in part because of the need for SSA funding. “A five-hour hole is very inconvenient, and might kill the whole thing,” she said. “A full day will more likely be successful, and is more likely to gain SSA approval, because it is serving their needs. I think you shoot yourself in the foot with a split schedule.” Planning board chairman and streetscape committee member Brian Packish agreed with Ms. Barmakian. “On the streetscape committee, we heard the public say it was important to make this as flexible as possible. The split schedule doesn’t do that.” Mr. Packish also contended that by endorsing the split schedule, the selectmen were ignoring the unanimous recommendation of the roads and byways committee, and of highway department supervisor Richard Combra, who favored a full schedule.

Selectman Michael Santoro challenged Mr. Packish’s recollection of the roads and byways meeting. He also questioned why Mr. Combra wasn’t at the meeting to present cost estimates for parking-lot construction.
Mr. Packish later texted Mr. Combra, who was on vacation in New Hampshire, and Mr. Combra restated his preference for a full schedule. Mr. Packish also said that according to his recollection of discussions with Ms. Grant, the SSA would expect the buses to accommodate all boats at the Oak Bluffs terminal.

“I mostly heard support for a full schedule,” parks and recreation commissioner Amy Billings said. “We also haven’t heard from the police chief about parking enforcement.” Ms. Billings said selectmen were jumping into something that is going to cause a commotion with neighbors.

David Underwood, a year-round resident who lives on Pacific Avenue, railed at the selectmen for the lack of neighborhood outreach. “It’s pretty obvious this plan has been going on for some time,” he said. “Nobody has mentioned this to the people who live in the area. I only found out about it two days ago when I went to town hall to pay my taxes.” Mr. Underwood said, “Nobody has mentioned a thing to people in the area. It’s a disgrace.”

Mr. Coogan had to interject several times to remind Mr. Underwood that the vote was not a final decision on the park and ride, only on the bus schedule, if the service is approved.

Merchant buy-in
Oak Bluffs Association (OBA) President Denis daRosa said that with either schedule, downtown business owners are prepared to promote the park and ride by word of mouth and by social media.

Nancy’s owner Doug Abdelnour said that if the service didn’t start until June 20, as currently proposed, employees would be more set in their routines and it would be more difficult to engender support for the park and ride. Selectmen discussed the possibility of beginning the service in mid-May.

OBA Executive Director Christine Todd said that a public awareness campaign has also been largely absent from the previous park and ride discussions, and would need to be addressed quickly should the service be approved.

“Who is going to monitor the parking lot?” Oak Bluffs resident Ann Smith asked. “How will you know if someone’s been parked there two hours or two days?”

Her question went unanswered.

“We need to start somewhere,” Mr. Santoro said. “There are hundreds of issues to be determined. Right now we’re just trying to get this thing off the ground.”

Selectman Walter Vail acknowledged the rushed nature of the process, but felt it was in the best interest of the town to proceed. “There might be roadblocks, but I think it’s worthwhile trying this now, rather than waiting another year,” he said.

As he did several times over the evening, Mr. Coogan stated that the evening’s vote was only to decide on a potential schedule, and that there will be a public hearing on March 10. “It is difficult to do this in the off-season, but we are trying to get something that will improve a great deal of the neighborhoods in town,” he said. “We’re trying to work with everybody.”

“This isn’t a permanent solution,” Mr. Santoro said. “Hopefully this is going to grow, and we can make a permanent lot at the old landfill, like they did in Tisbury.”

Ms. Barmakian later told The Times she abstained from the final vote because of the lack of neighborhood outreach, but she still supports the concept of a park and ride for the town.

Cannonicus decision postponed
In other transportation developments, a vote to make Cannonicus a one-way street was again postponed, due to the large number of residents off-Island during vacation week. The postponement came despite near-unanimous support from residents who were in attendance and who wrote in, all citing the increasing danger for drivers and pedestrians as the road, which has two blind curves, and has become a popular shortcut for cars and trucks that often exceed the speed limit. “All neighbors agree that traffic is increasing, and commercial vehicles use the road as a cut-through, and it’s getting more dangerous,” Cannonicus resident Bob Gaffey told the selectmen. “I don’t want to see one of my children or anyone else’s get hurt, and we’ve come close. Our preference is one-way street in either direction.” Fire Chief John Rose, who has gone on record as opposed to the change, was not in attendance.

No basketball
In other business, parks commissioner Amy Billings presented selectmen with a good news/bad news update on the Niantic Park renovation. The good news: the contract for the work will be awarded in early April, and per requirements of the contract, work will begin soon after. The bad news: the renovation will put the basketball courts out of action this summer. “I don’t want to open half a park,” she said. “To have people walking where we’re trying to plant grass and build a playground won’t work.”
Mr. Coogan expressed concern over the reaction of summer residents. “This is their prime time; they pay a lot of taxes to have things working. If there’s any way to work the basketball programs in, that should be paramount. It’s a big deal to a lot of kids.”
Ms. Billings said that alternative locations are being sought for the Streetball Classic tournament and for the basketball camps. So far, the Oak Bluffs School has been “unreceptive” to the idea.