Following promises to engage the Massachusetts Department of Transportation concerning the recent Big Bridge tragedy, which claimed the lives of two young men, the Dukes County Commission discussed correspondence from MassDOT sent to the towns of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown.
The fatal incident, resulting in the loss of life of brothers Tavaughn, 21, and Tavaris Bulgin, 26, after jumping off the famous bridge, sparked a lengthy conversation at the commission’s August 17 meeting regarding how to possibly avoid similar tragic events in the future.
American Legion Memorial Bridge, colloquially “Jaws Bridge” or “Big Bridge,” is not within the county’s jurisdiction, but rather that of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, leaving commissioners’ hands tied when it comes to enforcing restrictions in the area.
At their previous session, County Manager Martina Thornton told commissioners that numerous prior attempts to seek assistance with bridge safety — including a possible redesign — from MassDOT ultimately were ignored.
Thornton said the requests were put forth by the county, and the towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, but were never replied to until August 30, following the August 14 tragedy.
A letter made available to the county through Oak Bluffs and Edgartown town administrators shed light on the motivation — or lack thereof — on behalf of the state’s Department of Transportation to offer remedy to what many deem a dangerous site and urgent situation.
“It is well-known that jumping from this bridge is a longstanding local practice that has received sustained attention such that the location has become an informal attraction for both visitors and year-round residents of Martha’s Vineyard,” the letter states. “MassDOT neither endorses nor condones this activity on this bridge, or any other assets owned or maintained by MassDOT’s Highway Division.”
After receiving notices about the bridge’s safety in the past, MassDOT via District Highway Director Mary-Joe Perry said the department “installed signs several years ago indicating that jumping from this bridge was a dangerous activity that was prohibited,” but now the Vineyard “must rely on local and state law enforcement agencies.”
“MassDOT strongly encourages the towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs to make every effort to help raise awareness of the dangers associated with activities like jumping, and to discourage unsafe behavior,” the letter continues. “Through the combination of continued public discourse and use of local law enforcement, MassDOT believes these efforts will help dissuade dangerous behavior and educate the public to promote a safer environment for all roadway users, including pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.”
Commissioner Tristan Israel said MassDOT’s response was “nonsense,” and a “typical, bureaucratic, ‘we don’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole’ letter,” and suggested continuing engaging the department, at least regarding the bridge-adjacent roadway.
Thornton noted that the county has been in communication with Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, but the two towns have been fairly quiet when it comes to scheduling meeting times.
“This was a horrible event,” Israel said. “If people were to get together, we might be able to make this a safer situation,” acknowledging that views largely vary amongst the commission’s constituents regarding jumping off the bridge.
Commission chair Christine Todd highlighted the difficulties of a multitown agreement for how to address the bridge issue: “The whole gamut of our population is really participating in this,” she said; “it has become an [Island] attraction.”
Ultimately, “the responsibility does not fall on the county,” Todd said, but “the county feels concern over the perpetuation of this without any efforts being made to deter the activity.”
Todd questioned if a solution could even be agreed upon, in the event of a two-town and county meeting. “Aside from putting up a fence,” similar to that on the Bourne Bridge, “people are going to do what they’re going to do,” she said.
Commissioner Peter Wharton suggested inquiring as to whether town parks committees could move even one lifeguard stand closer to the bridge; though the concern would be that it could have the effect of emboldening jumpers. Wharton questioned, by adding lifeguards, “do we make the activity safer if we can’t restrict it?”
With few other suggestions from commissioners on how to proceed, Thornton made note of various unintentional advertisements involving jumping off Jaws Bridge — inadvertently promoting the activity — and suggested efforts be made to avoid creating or sharing material that encourages the behavior (such as published in papers or printed on T shirts). Additionally, Thornton said, entities such as the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, and others that are responsible for suggesting activities for vacationers, could include warnings about the recent tragedy.
“That’s a good suggestion,” Todd said. “Certainly we can make an effort, whether it’s successful or not, to encourage those who are promoting it to not promote it anymore. There are certainly plenty of other things that are appealing and attractive [to visitors and residents].”
Chamber of Commerce executive director Carolina Cooney has already begun initiating the suggestion by Thornton. In a statement sent to The Times, Cooney said, “While jumping off the Jaws Bridge has long been considered a rite of passage for Islanders and visitors alike, taking into consideration recent events, we will certainly not be promoting nor recommending this activity in the future. We also hope this encourages the addition of safety measures at the bridge, such as life preservers and a reaching pole, as well as increased patrols by state and local police.”