Political Bias Dictates Traffic Study Revision by Planners at the Cape Cod Commission

By NIS KILDEGAARD

Falmouth political leaders and activists pushing for Steamship Authority service from New Bedford were irate in August of 2000.

The Cape Cod Commission had just released the first draft of its study of traffic in Falmouth, concluding that "Freight service from New Bedford . . . should not be a noticeable benefit to traffic in the Woods Hole area." The report also found that "the introduction of SSA ferry service for passengers from New Bedford is unlikely to attract much patronage."

Frank Shephard of Woods Hole, a spokesman for Citizens for Sound Planning and Falmouth's member of the Cape Cod Commission, expressed his distress at that initial draft in an e-mail to his town's selectmen. He noted with concern that Rep. Bill Delahunt "has already used [the draft report] to defend Martha's Vineyard's regressive attitudes," and suggested, "It could also be that the selectmen will simply want to reject the report out of hand as being unresponsive to their request."

In the end, selectmen sent the traffic study back to the Cape Cod Commission to be reworked - this time under the close supervision of a Falmouth steering committee.

Fifteen months later, the commission issued a revised 48-page draft of the study, dated Nov. 15, 2001. As much as anything, the document reflects the hard work of the steering committee, which met with the commission's research staff more than a dozen times as the report was being prepared.

The latest version of the report featured an executive summary written by Frank Shephard himself. And to the surprise of absolutely no one who has followed this highly politicized process, the first recommendation in the new report's conclusions is directed squarely at the SSA: "Pursue alternative ports and vessels."

Clay Schofield, a transportation engineer with the Cape Cod Commission and a principal investigator for the report, told the Gazette this week that he is unaware of any other case in which a research project was presided over in this way by a local steering committee.

Charles Clifford, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, said this week that in his view, the report is not credible, and that the Cape Cod Commission seriously undercut its own credibility by allowing political partisans a role in the new draft.

"This was definitely a Jeopardy program," Mr. Clifford said. "Here is the answer: Now you go and get the question for us.

"We have never had anybody outside of this office write a report for us. That's why you have paid professionals - you might not like the answers you get, but by God, the answer is the answer."

The new report is remarkable in its methodology, and in its omissions. Many findings of facts that undercut Falmouth's political push for a New Bedford SSA operation either failed to make it from the first report to the second, or are now buried in appendices.

Among those findings:

* Housing starts in the town of Falmouth outstripped every other town on Cape Cod in the past decade, accounting for some 23,000 new daily vehicle trips on Falmouth roads.

* In 1998, SSA traffic accounted for just 2.8 per cent of all traffic crossing the Cape Cod Canal.

* The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution employs 1,200 people in the summer season and attracts 300,000 visitors each year, and a new marine biological laboratory recently approved for construction in the Woods Hole village will add another 320 daily vehicle trips on the Woods Hole Road.

The new report manages to skate around these facts, although a careful reader can still find suggestions that Steamship Authority traffic is not the only cause of congestion in Falmouth and Woods Hole.

"Traffic is growing everywhere on the Cape," notes the new report, citing an overall growth of 13.02 per cent over the past decade. "The Upper Cape has seen the largest growth rate on Cape Cod in this period of 17.34 per cent or an average annual rate of 1.61 per cent (compounded)."

On the same page, the report cites two studies of traffic growth on Route 28, the primary access road for the Woods Hole SSA, near the intersection at Palmer avenue. Traffic at that point was measured in 1992 and 1998, and was found over that interval to have increased at a rate of 1.60 per cent per year.

In other words - although the report fails to state this clearly - traffic on the main artery carrying traffic bound for the SSA in Woods Hole has actually been growing at a rate no greater than traffic in Falmouth generally.

But the most remarkable example of conclusions driving research comes in the heart of the new study, in chapters five and six, Traffic Conditions and Data Analysis. In these chapters, the commission report applies standards set by the federal Transportation Research Board, which places traffic conditions (called level of service or LOS) into six categories with letter grades much like those given out in grammar school - A through F.

Under the guidance of the Falmouth steering committee, the Cape Cod Commission set out to study the traffic turning from Woods Hole Road onto Crane street near the SSA terminal during a two-hour window on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 23, 2000.

"For the purposes of this study," states the report, "LOS C has been defined as the worst acceptable level of service for traffic conditions."

In fact, LOS C traffic is something most Vineyarders would give their eye teeth for on an afternoon in August. The Federal Highway Administration defines that level of traffic as having "flow with speeds still at or near the free-flow speed" of the highway, although "freedom to maneuver within the traffic stream is noticeably restricted." It's not until LOS E, according to federal standards, that a road reaches capacity and traffic flow seriously declines.

Conventional methods for analyzing traffic congestion call for counting vehicles for an hour and comparing the numbers to theoretical carrying capacities (calculated in this case by the Massachusetts Highway Department). But when the commission crunched its Woods Hole numbers, it found a problem: Even on a busy summer afternoon at an intersection specifically chosen to highlight the traffic problem, the commission was unable to find a traffic count with a grade of worse than LOS B. That's a good grade, well in the range of free and stable traffic flow.

This is where the Cape Cod Commission began to depart from standard traffic-measuring practice in an effort to find a problem on the Woods Hole Road. The commission's research team began by narrowing the measurement window to just 15 minutes in an effort to catch the congestion around the arrival of an SSA ferry - specifically the largest boat in the fleet, the M/V Martha's Vineyard, on an August afternoon when it was packed with 104 per cent of its designed vehicle capacity.

Still, the commission team was unable, by its own admission, to identify a problem on the Woods Hole Road. States the report, "The traffic count included 94 vehicles in this 15-minute period, which represented 74 per cent of the roadway capacity defined for a desired [sic] LOS of C."

Even using the unorthodox 15-minute window, the Cape Cod Commission still couldn't find a traffic problem on the Woods Hole Road of the severity it was looking for.

At this point the traffic study team, under pressure from the Falmouth steering committee, did the only thing it could: It narrowed the window again, this time to four minutes.

The report acknowledges the intervention of the steering committee in a special boxed paragraph preceding the four-minute traffic analysis:

"The Falmouth steering committee urged the commission to look at the problem more closely, which led to our detailed, coordinated turning movement counts that provided data on a continuous basis."

Back to the afternoon of August 23, 2000, when the M/V Martha's Vineyard began disgorging a full load of cars and trucks at 1:58 p.m. The Cape Cod Commission found the following traffic impact on Railroad avenue and Woods Hole Road:

"From 1:58 to before 2:05 - No significant impact.

"From 2:05 to 2:09 - Significant congestion at Railroad avenue and Woods Hole Road.

"From 2:10 - No significant impact."

The commission report admits in the very next paragaph that it needed a methodological microscope to find this traffic effect: "In fact, the LOS for the 2:00 to 2:15 time period on Woods Hole Road was acceptable."

In its further discussion of this four-minute problem, the commission resorts to anecdotes unsupported by any research. "The four-minute surge has been described to last as long as 10 minutes," the report declares, not revealing its sources.

Two pages later: "Residents claim that the surges created by the unloading of vehicles and passengers create waves of traffic that overwhelm the intersection capacities as they ripple through the rest of Falmouth." The study team went to the traffic signals at Quisset avenue and Jones Road in search of this effect, but found, "automobile traffic from the ferry docks appeared to be dissipated" by the time it reached these points. Even though the Quisset avenue measurements were taken at the height of rush hour, the study notes: "The observer did not note any significant delays."

This is the data on which Frank Shephard bases his declaration, in the executive summary of the new report: "The bottom line of this study is that both Martha's Vineyard and Falmouth indeed have a problem, and that without changes it will continue to grow."

The executive summary concludes:

"In the long term, one or both Islands will need ferry service from the mainland. Most prominent in such discussions is New Bedford, which can capture without inconvenience (based on various origin/destination surveys) at least 30 per cent of Island-bound traffic (about the amount of relief that Falmouth voters have demanded).

"SSA management has floated transportation models that involve New Bedford, and the city, itself, wants to participate in Island service. While future scenarios need not be confined to the city of New Bedford, the general need for mainland service will only increase. The forms that it might take are presently the subject of much political debate."