Study offers keys to unlock Five Corners, Look Street intersections

Ideas include a turning lane, modified roundabout, one way streets and a traffic signal for Tisbury's two troublesome intersections.

A Google Earth satellite view of the Five Corners intersection from May of this year. — Google Earth

Slowly but surely, local Tisbury officials working with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) are moving to address Five Corners, easily the most vexing intersection on Martha’s Vineyard, and its close second, the three-way intersection of State Road, Look Street, and Edgartown–Vineyard Haven (Edg.-V.H.) Road.

A study commissioned by MassDOT and conducted by Greenman-Pedersen Inc. (GPI), an engineering and construction services firm, released in March, listed a number of recommendations designed to increase safety and the flow of traffic. These include reconfiguring traffic flow into the Vineyard Haven Post Office so that all traffic enters from Lagoon Pond Road, and changing Look Street to one way.

Unlike the fate of many studies — destined only for the shelf in a municipal bookcase — several recommendations have already been implemented. These include the reconfiguration of the Steamship Authority’s (SSA) Vineyard Haven terminal staging area, the addition of a second check-in booth to alleviate traffic backups during ferry arrival and departure times, and a trial reversal of traffic flow on Union Street. More changes may be on the way.

Greenman-Pedersen released the results of the two road safety audits (RSA) conducted at both locations on March 17, 2015. The report includes tables listing 31 potential safety enhancements each for Five Corners and Look Street, as well as safety payoff estimates, time frames, costs, and the agencies responsible.

The audits also included detailed traffic counts the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) conducted in the winter and summer from 1990-2005 at major Island intersections and at Five Corners in the summers of 2013 and 2014, and by GPI in the fall of 2014.

An audit team that includes representatives of MassDOT and GPI personnel, Tisbury selectman Melinda Loberg, town administrator John “Jay” Grande, and representatives from the Tisbury Planning Board, police and fire departments, MVC, and SSA has engaged in an ongoing process that began with a review of the data and recommendations, ranked by priority.

In August, Mr. Grande, planning board chairman Dan Seidman, Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel, and Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour met with MassDOT officials to explore funding possibilities through the state’s Complete Streets Funding Program.

The draft safety enhancements suggested in the audits are currently under review by MassDOT, according to spokesman Michael Verseckes.

“Providing the concepts meet design and safety guidelines and standards, MassDOT will work with the town to develop a plan for funding and implementing the changes,” Mr. Verseckes said an email to The Times.

Five Corners audit

Five Corners is the name given to the traffic-stopping hub at the intersection of Beach Road, Beach Street, Water Street, Lagoon Pond Road, and Beach Street Extension in the heart of Vineyard Haven. Major backups occur east and west along Beach Road, particularly in the summer season, tied to the ebb and flow of ferry arrivals and departures.

The intersection confounds Island residents and visitors alike as they try to navigate their way safely from side streets controlled by stop signs into Beach Road traffic that has the right-of-way.

The audit team’s observations included: an impossible turning radius for trucks and heavy equipment from Water Street onto Beach Road; poorly located crosswalks that limit drivers’ sightline for pedestrians; backups in eastbound Beach Road traffic due to drivers waiting to turn left; and significant drainage issues, especially when heavy rain and high tide coincide.

The audit also highlighted some local factors that contribute to Five Corners’ faults. Although Islanders are fond of their unique road signage topped with a bunch of grapes motif, the report notes that the large direction sign at the corner of Beach Street and Lagoon Pond Road may be misleading. The sign does offer direction to the other Island towns, but the way the the arrows are placed, especially for Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, may lead drivers to make a hard left onto Beach Street Extension, instead of a slight left onto Beach Road, the report points out.

You go, no you

Although driver courtesy is usually a plus, that’s not always the case at Five Corners, according to the audit report. Many drivers, especially those new to the Island, are unsure of who has the right of way, and may misunderstand a cue from another driver. “A Water Street vehicle may get the ‘go-ahead’ from the mainline vehicles, but a vehicle exiting Lagoon Pond Road may not see this exchange,” the report points out.

Oftentimes, Beach Street drivers come to a complete stop or slow down to let traffic from side streets proceed, the report adds, which may be unexpected by vehicles following them and result in a rear-end collision.

“It was also noted that this intersection works only because drivers make eye contact with one another and wave each other on,” the report said. “Although this sense of ‘politeness’ keeps the intersection moving, it may also be contributable to various types of collisions that occur at the intersection.”

Possible safety improvements included in the RSA for consideration at Five Corners range from better

signage to removing the expanse of brick in front of the post office in order to create a dedicated left-turn lane off Beach Road onto Water Street, to a modified roundabout.

Safety enhancements selected by Mr. Grande and town department heads as priorities include the installation of centerline “elephant tracks” through the intersection for Beach Street and Beach Road; relocating the offset crosswalks on Lagoon Pond and Beach Roads; and improving signage and drainage.

But as Mr. Seidman pointed out, “There’s only so many ways you can put ten pounds into a five-pound bag.”

“There’s not a whole lot we can do,” he added. “You’re not going to produce an intersection that’s going to handle the ultimate load, because the ultimate load is present only about 5 percent of the time, year-round. I think the best we’re going to do is make the situation more tolerable, and hopefully a little more efficient.”

Look Street/Edg.-V.H. Road audit

The intersection of State Road at Look Street and Edg.-V.H. Road is an offset four-way intersection without traffic signals. Drivers on Look Street and Edg.-V.H. Road, which are controlled by stop signs, are stymied as they attempt to gain access to or cross State Road, where a heavier volume of traffic has the right-of-way.

The intersection is especially difficult for drivers on Edg.-V.H. Road who are trying to turn left onto State Road, or worse yet, to get to Look Street, as they must first turn onto State Road and then make an immediate right onto Look Street. The same is true for drivers on Look Street trying to get to Edg.-V.H. Road.

“The lack of safe gaps in traffic on State Road results in frustration of drivers on the sidelines and therefore, aggressive left turns onto State Road are common,” the RSA audit observations noted. “It is normal to see mainline motorists on State Road stop and yield to the cross traffic in order to relieve queues on the sidelines. However, this courtesy often increases backups on State Road and is also a safety hazard for people using the intersection.”

Suggested safety improvements in the audit selected by Mr. Grande and town department heads as priorities include evaluating the possibility of temporarily making Look Street one-way northbound to reduce the amount of vehicles entering the intersection and help reduce driver confusion; making Look Street a dead end by completely closing off the street at State Road; and installing a modern roundabout or full traffic signal at the intersection.

Other possible safety enhancements suggested in the audit are to improve signage; refresh pavement markings, especially along Look Street and Edg.-V.H. Road; and relocate the crosswalk on State Road west of the intersection or relocate the retaining wall and utility pole to provide better sightlines.

Crash data

A total of 10 collisions, an average of 3.33 per year, were reported at Five Corners from 2009 to 2011,

according to police crash records reviewed by the audit team. Rear-end collisions occurred in five, or half, of the crashes, and of those, three were on the eastbound approach of Beach Street, heading toward Oak Bluffs. Two of the 10 collisions involved pedestrians crossing along the Beach Street approach. Two crashes involved injuries. There were no fatalities.

The most accidents occurred in the month of August (30 percent), on Mondays (40 percent), in dry conditions (80 percent), during daylight (90 percent), and between 8 to 10 am (30 percent) and 4 to 6 pm (30 percent).

The statewide average for intersections without traffic signals is 0.60 crashes per million entering vehicles (c/mev), and for MassDOT District 5, which includes Martha’s Vineyard, 0.58 c/mev. The calculated crash rate for Beach Road at Five Corners fell below both state and district averages, at 0.54 c/mev.

The calculated crash rate for State Road at Look Street and Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, however, is 0.61 c/mev, higher than both the statewide and district-wide averages of 0.60 c/mev and 0.58 c/mev, respectively. A total of 11 collisions were reported at the intersections of State Road at Look Street and Edg.-V.H. Road from 2009 to 2011, according to police records.

The most accidents occurred in August (27 percent) and September (27 percent), on Wednesdays (45 percent), in dry conditions (82 percent), during daylight (91 percent), and between 2 to 4 pm (36 percent) and 4 to 6 pm (27 percent). One crash resulted in injury, and there were no fatalities.

“Out of the 11 collisions, two involved mopeds with tourists and five involved Island residents only,” the report notes. “Of the remaining four, all of which involved non-Islanders, residents were at fault for two of them.”

How the audits evolved

Five Corners traffic has been the subject of ongoing discussions for some time by the Joint Transportation Committee (JTC), made up of representatives from across the Island who examine transportation issues and advise the MVC. In January 2014, after reviewing crash data for Five Corners, MVC senior transportation planner Priscilla Leclerc asked MassDOT about scheduling an RSA. A few months later, she put in a request to include one for the State Road, Look Street, and Edg.-V.H. Road intersection, as well. The audits were

scheduled in October but postponed due to weather until Dec. 3.

When asked in an email from The Times about what happens next, Mr. Grande replied, “We hope to continue working with the JTC of MVC and MassDOT, working closely with Priscilla Leclerc, MVC, and Pam Hazner, MassDOT, on implementation of additional recommendations over the next two years.”