West Tisbury selectmen cautious about accepting standardized project review process

Becoming a Complete Streets town would make state funding available for work on State Road.

This stretch of State Road, known as the North Tisbury Bridge, and the possibility of expanding it was the subject of discussion at West Tisbury's Board of Selectmen meeting on Wednesday. —Ralph Stewart

At their Wednesday meeting on Nov. 30, West Tisbury board of selectmen (BOS) expressed cautious support for joining the state Complete Streets program. Three weeks earlier, at the board’s Nov. 9 meeting, town administrator Jennifer Rand suggested that the town’s plans for a bike lane on State Road might make them eligible for Complete Streets funding. Complete Streets is a national program adopted by many states that can provide funds for new transportation corridors; its process requires that towns go through a specified series of reviews using recognized standards when they plan such corridors.
Berta Geller and Kate Warner, members of a committee created by the planning board, were on hand to answer questions about a policy document they had shared with the selectmen. Agreeing to the terms of the policy would serve as admittance to the Complete Streets program of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). It was written by the staff of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) in generic terms so that individual towns could alter it to suit their own requirements. The West Tisbury planning board had already seen the application, and its changes were incorporated into the version before the selectmen.
Complete Streets is also the name for a national movement in urban planning. MassDOT has accepted its standards, and makes acceptance of the standards a condition for funding of local improvement projects.
According to the MassDOT website, “A Complete Street is one that provides safe and accessible options for all travel modes — walking, biking, transit, and vehicles — for people of all ages and abilities. Designing streets with these principles contributes toward the safety, health, economic viability, and quality of life in a community by improving the pedestrian and vehicular environments.”
Richard Knabel, BOS chairman, was troubled by what he termed vague terminology in the policy. He cited the words “decision makers” as an example. “It is by implication,” he said, “not the board of selectmen, because we don’t control the planning board and vice versa.”
“The planning board would be the decision makers if there were things to review,” Ms. Geller said.
Ms. Geller explained to the BOS that participation in the Complete Streets program would make the town eligible for funds that would address the need for bike paths along State Road. Upon being accepted as members, the town would immediately be able to apply for $50,000 to help fund the planning of the project. Eventually they would be able to compete for a $400,000 grant to apply to construction costs.
Mr. Knabel reminded Ms. Geller and Ms. Warner that he was on an MVC Rural Road committee, which was now dormant, but which Adam Turner, the new MVC director, wished to restart.
“The committee had serious concerns about the guides and manuals to roads listed in this policy. These guides give us roads that we don’t want,” Mr. Knabel said. “If we’re buying into this, we’re hamstringing another effort by the MVC to create something different.”
Ms. Geller directed him to a “Exceptions” section of the policy, which addressed “community context” and “cultural needs,” and allows a community to alter the specifications in the manuals that Mr. Knabel referred to.
Ms. Warner said that if the town wished to go forward with the bike-path project, that Complete Streets offered a way to go forward and a way to get a professional to look at the situation. “We need to do this,” she said, “before the state will do any work on State Road.”

Before tabling the discussion, Mr. Knabel invited selectmen Cynthia Mitchell and Skipper Manter to add their comments.

Ms. Mitchell said she had been “tripped up” by the “Vision and Intent” section of the policy. It listed taking into consideration home, work, shopping, and recreation concerns when making decisions about transportation corridors, but she said she would like to see a reference to public and private service destinations, such as town hall or a business.

Ms. Mitchell also raised the subject of the “North Tisbury bridge” over Mill Brook on State Road, which the town would like to widen. Ms. Rand, the town administrator, related the confusing correspondence that she has had with the state regarding the bridge, which variously claims that the bridge is not a bridge, that it does not need repair, and that there is no money available, or the opposite.

Mr. Knabel said he had received a design for a new bridge from the state, but that MassDOT had subsequently dropped the project and insisted it had never existed.

Like Mr. Knabel, Mr. Manter expressed concern about the vagueness of some of the terms in the policy. Ms. Geller offered to add any terms that he preferred.

Mr. Manter was also uncomfortable with the use of the word “will” in association with review processes. He preferred to use “may.”

“But that’s the point of this [policy],” Ms. Rand said. “When we decided to become a green community, we decided to adopt the Stretch Code. It’s not optional. If we are going to a Complete Streets town and have access to the funds, we are going to have to look at the projects with a Complete Streets design review.” The Stretch Code is overseen by the state Executive Office of Public Safety, and uses provisions of the International Energy Conservation Code 2009, but provides a more energy-efficient alternative to the standard energy provisions of the code that a municipality may adopt.

The discussion concluded with everyone agreeing that Mr. Knabel would meet with Mr. Turner and get the MVC’s reading on the matter.