State Plan for Sengekontacket Bridges Draws Scrutiny and Raises Concerns

By CHRIS BURRELL

The state wants to spend $3.25 million replacing the Big and Little Bridges on Beach Road along Sengekontacket Pond with concrete structures, but last week at a public hearing in the Oak Bluffs School, a handful of Islanders tried convincing state engineers to tread lightly because these are no ordinary bridges.

The two bridges built of wood are as beloved as the covered bridges of Vermont, said Thea Hansen, a resident of Oak Bluffs who handles seasonal real estate rentals.

They're recreational destinations for fishermen and children, said Kenneth Abbott of Edgartown.

They are crucial to the scenic landscape that keeps tourists coming to the Island and to places like Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, said Alan Gowell.

And when Islanders glimpsed the preliminary designs from MassHighway, they weren't pleased.

"This type of bridge belongs on the Mass Turnpike, not Beach road," said Steve Berlucci, the county engineer.

An experienced bridge builder himself who used to work for MassHighway, Mr. Berlucci attempted to clue in his former colleagues to the aesthetic sensitivities of Martha's Vineyard residents.

"You're going to have the fight of all time on your hands if you think you're going to build a bridge like that. Believe me," he said.

MassHighway engineer Lawrence Cash was clearly a little nonplused by the negative feedback that greeted him. "I didn't think it was that bad," he said at one point.

But he also made it clear that from the state's perspective, the main factor is safety, and rebuilding a wooden bridge is out of the question.

"I don't see how the bridge could be replaced with a timber structure," said Mr. Cash.

The next day, in a telephone interview, the MassHighway engineer told the Gazette that the two bridge projects are high on the highway department's priority list.

"They are timber structures, and they are structurally deficient and deteriorated," he said. "They do need attention, and they do need to be replaced."

When Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, asked why the bridges couldn't simply be repaired, it was Mr. Berlucci who fielded the question.

"The failure is at the mud line," he said. "You can't do a structural repair on piles that are sunk in the mud."

The bridges, just over a mile apart, were built in the 1930s, then partially reconstructed in 1953 and again in 1988. The Little Bridge is 60 feet long and 30 feet wide, with a five-foot wide sidewalk on the pond side.

The proposed new bridge would be raised by 19 inches with a roadway widened to 33 feet, six inches. In addition, a 10-foot-wide sidewalk would be added on the pond side.

The Big Bridge is currently 241 feet long and also has a roadway 30 feet wide. What makes the Big Bridge unique are its two four-foot-wide sidewalks, which sit lower than the roadway.

Under the new plan, the Big Bridge would be rebuilt 17 inches higher and with a roadway six incher narrower. Like the present bridge, sidewalks would be built on both sides. The proposal calls for a ten-foot sidewalk on the pond side and a five-foot sidewalk on the ocean side, both at road level.

Selling points of the new bridges included easier navigation for boats since the bridges would be higher and the number of spans reduced from 16 to four at the Big Bridge, for example. Mr. Cash told the Gazette that the new bridge would probably pose less dangers to swimmers who dive off the railings since there were be fewer spans and the pilings would be driven straight down into the sand with no outcroppings.

Several people called on the state to build sidewalks that are lower than the roadway, citing safety concerns especially for the youngsters who crowd the bridge railing and use it as a springboard for their dives into the channel.

Others urged the state to consider constructing cantilevered sidewalks that hung down lower than the roadway. But Mr. Cash was skeptical, saying that the sidewalks need to be accessible to the handicapped.

But sidewalks were just one facet of the plans that drew comment. The proposed concrete baluster railings, also known as Texas rails, were a major sore spot for many of the people who attended the hearing. "They are nothing short of offensive," said Mr. Abbott.

Mr. Berlucci offered sketches of an alternative bridge plan that included a type of wood-covered guardrail. Again, Mr. Cash listened to the suggestions and criticisms, but the next day, told the Gazette that he would have a difficult time approving wooden railings of any sort.

"The problem with timber rails is they're not crash-tested," he said. "They need to protect vehicles from going off the bridge, and the existing rails have wide openings. The timber can't be more than a four-inch separation to protect a small child from slipping through."

Others complained that the public process was rushed and that the state needed to come back to the Vineyard again before moving any further with the design.

"It might be better in the long run to show people what it's going to look like," said Mr. London. "Bring back the revised plan at this 25 per cent step, so the community can sign off."

Christina Miller, a board member of the nonprofit group Friends of Sengekontacket, also criticized the process: "We were not party to developing these plans, and we need time to study and review the proposal."

But Mr. Cash said this was the last formal public hearing at this stage of the design process. He said selectmen from Edgartown and Oak Bluffs could call for meetings with officials from MassHighway and discuss the plans further, but he and his teams of engineers were ready to pack up and catch the next ferry back to the mainland.

"It's difficult when you have to meet state standards," he said the following day, "and compete with questions of aesthetics and ambience, as they put it."

Mr. Cash could not say when construction might begin on the project, but he was pleased to hear some people at the hearing consider the idea of closing the road during construction, which would allow the project to be completed within one year and not over the course of two years. Under the proposal, the construction would take place in two phases, during which one lane of each bridge would remain open.