Vote for symmetrical Beach Road plan leaves town divided

An illustration of the symmetrical design for Beach Road. — Illustration courtesy of Tisbury

Tisbury selectmen Tuesday voted 2-1 to accept the so-called “symmetrical” plan for a comprehensive and long-discussed redesign of Beach Road. In doing so, they spurned the overriding sentiment of those who attended the packed meeting and a recommendation by Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) transportation planners.

The vote followed a motion by selectman Melinda Loberg to accept the “hybrid” plan, which generated a short-lived eruption of cheers and applause from the audience.

That design is the same as the “symmetrical” plan from the Five Corners intersection to the Tisbury marketplace, with an eventual transition to a section with a 10-foot “shared-use path” (SUP) that would connect to the existing SUP between Wind’s Up and the Lagoon Pond drawbridge, and a future 10-foot SUP crossing over the bridge into Oak Bluffs.

Following a no vote, Tisbury selectman Larry Gomez made a motion to accept the symmetrical plan, which calls for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to construct 10.5-foot travel lanes, 4.5-foot bike lanes, and 5.5-foot sidewalks extending as far as the Lagoon Pond drawbridge from Five Corners. The travel lanes would shrink from 12 feet wide to 10.5 feet.

The third “hybrid hybrid” plan, the most recent effort at compromise, was not put to vote.

Punt to voters

Prior to their vote, and cognizant of the clear disagreement that continued to exist among town officials, planners, and members of the public, Ms. Loberg suggested the decision be brought to a town meeting in December. “If we are not comfortable making a decision, because we have obviously not reached a consensus here, perhaps we do need to ask for more experts to work with us, or we need to prepare a proposal for a town meeting and let the town make the decision for us,” she said. “I would hate to see us go with a divided town to the DOT, because I feel as if that will have long-term consequences for smooth operations of the town and cooperation among our boards. One of our missions and goals is to work together as a team.”

Anticipating her colleagues’ positions, she questioned whether or not it would reflect the will of the town.

“I don’t see the point [of a special town meeting] for the issues so far that are at hand,” selectman Tristan Israel said. He said he didn’t know if MassDOT would wait two months for a decision, given the pending funding and 2017 timeline for the project.

“We were told we needed an answer now,” he said.

Selectmen agreed to meet Tuesday at 5:30 pm to discuss whether to put the Beach Road project to vote at a special town meeting in December. If MassDOT is unwilling to wait, however, Mr. Israel said they will honor the vote to move forward with the symmetrical road plan.

Discouraging outcome

The Beach Road project was initiated by the Martha’s Vineyard joint transportation committee to provide a link between down-Island towns via a network of shared-use paths, in addition to the 37 miles of SUPs that already span the Island. A 10-foot SUP is also being constructed crossing over the bridge into Oak Bluffs, and plans are in the works for a SUP from the Tisbury Marketplace to what will be the new Martha’s Vineyard Museum on Lagoon Pond Road and Veteran’s Park.

On Tuesday night, Bill Veno, senior MVC planner, recommended the hybrid design, and said it was the safer option.

“This project was initiated by the Island’s joint transportation committee, and prioritized for budgeting from the Island’s transportation fund, because it was kind of seen as a continuation of some other invested projects that were going on to connect the shared-use path from the drawbridge to the path that is supposed to go from the marketplace to Lagoon Pond Road and Veteran’s Park,” he said. “So this shared-use path from Tisbury marketplace to Wind’s Up was prioritized as the next logical step.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Veno said the decision by selectmen seemed to ignore that the project was initiated for the purpose of constructing a shared-use path.

“It’s discouraging, because there’s been so much information provided,” he said. “But the selectmen are there to do what they think is right. There’s still a case to be made to MassDOT that this project was initiated for the purpose of creating an off-road bike path along that segment of road, and the joint transportation committee allocated the money for that.”

He said there are more discussions to be had, moving forward.

Asked if the project would be reviewed as a development of regional impact (DRI), Mr. Veno said that would be contingent on a referral from a town board.

Ben Robinson, a member of the Tisbury planning board, told The Times it is still up in the air how the project will move forward at this point.

Safety and human nature

On Tuesday, the majority of meeting attendees favored the “hybrid” plan. The point of contention was the eventual transition to a section with a 10-foot shared-use path that would connect to the existing SUP.

Many speakers stressed that safety was the top priority. Mr. Israel focused on the aesthetics of the design.

“I get it that safety is No. 1, but having an attractive entranceway to our town, I think that 4.5-foot bike lanes are better than what we have now,” Mr. Israel said.

Mr. Gomez said the SUP went against human nature. “I was taught at an early age that you walk against the traffic and you ride with the traffic,” he said.

The asymmetrical hybrid design was an attempt to accommodate bicyclists both on- and off-road, and provide an option for bicyclists uneasy with riding with traffic. The idea of the hybrid plan was to connect that proposed SUP network to the Beach Road SUP, instead of sending all bike and pedestrian traffic into Five Corners.

Mr. Israel suggested that bicyclists uneasy with riding with traffic could ride on the sidewalks. “I think regardless of rules and regulations, if we have nice 5.5-foot sidewalks going into town on either side, that those that are afraid will be on those sidewalks,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you be on those sidewalks? We aren’t going to be having police saying you can’t be; it’s just not going to happen.”

He expressed concern with bicyclists and pedestrians sharing the 10-foot SUP. “I also have concerns with pedestrians and bicyclists on the SUP with the curb cuts,” he said. He said there are 19 curb cuts.

Ms. Loberg pointed out the same concern remains with the symmetrical design. “Those 19 curb cuts would have to go across a sidewalk and a bike lane too,” she said. “It’s either a SUP and a smaller shoulder or a sidewalk and a bike lane. It’s pretty much the same territory. It’s the same distance.”

Ms. Loberg asked the board to consider more than their own instincts.

“I don’t think any one of the three of us is any kind of traffic expert or a traffic engineer, or even a very good bicyclist, so we have invoked and asked the planning board and the professionals at the commission to help us and advise us, and they have done a lot of work on this project on our behalf,” she said. “It’s important to me that we respect their input and hear what they have to say, and really take it more seriously than we do our own instincts, because we’re trying to decide something on behalf of all the Islanders and visitors.”

“I don’t think I’ve dismissed anything,” Mr. Israel said. “Personally, I’ve listened very hard to what everyone has to say. If I dismissed it, I would’ve just taken a vote and moved on. That’s part of the reason we had this process, to allow all this to happen.”

Safer or not?

Dr. Henry Nieder, who commutes by bicycle to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, said he did a calculation, and he’s ridden across the Lagoon Pond bridge 11,000 times in the past 27 years. He said the different kinds of users, different speeds of users, and constrained space could make the SUP more dangerous than staying in the road.

“I think that the initial reaction for almost everybody who thinks about shared-use paths is that they’re safer,” he said. “They’re separated from the road, and therefore by its very nature it should be safer, because we’re afraid that cars are what we should be concerned about. But I think that’s not always true.”

David Ferraguzzi expressed an opposite opinion. “To tell you the truth, I’d rather get hit by another bike than by a car,” he said. “If you’ve ridden down that road, you see people coming off the boat, and they’ve got a couple small kids with them, and they’re riding down the road, and they’re wobbling. If we’re talking about safety, get them off the road. It’s just not a safe place to do that.”

Planning board member Cheryl Doble said the planning board had invested an immense amount of time into a compromise solution between those two sides. She said people ride in the sidewalk because they are afraid. Riders coming from Oak Bluffs will ride over the bridge on the SUP and continue to Wind’s Up on the current SUP, she said. With the symmetrical plan, they will be presented with two options: Cross the street and ride with traffic, or continue on the same side, riding on the sidewalk.

“They are going to continue to ride down the sidewalk to the market — I worry that’s the case,” she said. “Now we have walkers on that route, we have bicycles going in both directions, and we have a 5.5-foot width. So there isn’t an easy solution. These SUPs have been studied; we’ve had the planning board study them, and we’ve had consultants study them, and they keep coming back with this may be our best option.”