MassHighway officials say they will put plans for a temporary replacement for the Lagoon Pond drawbridge on hold until Island residents decide whether to nurse the existing bridge along until a new permanent structure is built.
The state agency also says it will involve the Island in the design of a new permanent bridge at the outset of the planning process - a departure from previous department policy of consulting residents only after plans have been drafted.
The developments came yesterday during a meeting in Boston between MassHighway engineers and a cross-section of Island officials at the town and regional levels. The two groups met to review ongoing plans for the replacement of the Lagoon Pond bridge.
MassHighway is proposing to build a $3.5 million temporary drawbridge as the first phase of a long-term plan to replace the aging existing bridge.
"They are only building the temporary bridge for us," said Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the primary liaison with MassHighway on the drawbridge project.
"If the Vineyard community says it is willing to take a chance that the existing bridge will last - and will really sign off on that and not hold MassHighway responsible - it can happen. But we have to do a lot of work to understand what the risks are."
MassHighway spokesman Jon Carlisle said the state agency will not hire a consultant to design the permanent bridge until it hears from Islanders what they want to do about a temporary replacement.
"We are not taking any scenario off the table. But [abandoning the temporary bridge project] is something we would need to see significant consensus on - to know that residents fully understand the potential impacts," said Mr. Carlisle.
He said the temporary bridge plans are on hold, adding that the delay will not affect the project schedule should MassHighway eventually decide to build an interim structure.
MassHighway's stand on the issue marks a significant shift from last November, when officials insisted there was no way to avoid constructing a temporary bridge, given the rapid deterioration of the existing one.
Officials also said a temporary bridge would allow them the necessary time - at least six years - to design, permit and build a permanent drawbridge. It also would allow them to consider fully how pond circulation and navigational safety might be improved.
Melinda Loberg, president of Tisbury Waterways Inc., said officials at the meeting continued to press for the temporary bridge solution, but were willing to wait for the community to come to a consensus.
The Thursday meeting was scheduled at the request of Mr. London, who in December wrote MassHighway a letter suggesting the creation of a small working group to meet regularly with the state agency throughout the planning process.
Seven MassHighway officials attended, including bridge project manager Steve McLaughlin and John Blundo, deputy chief of highway engineering.
Along with Mr. London and Ms. Loberg, Tisbury public works director Fred LaPiana; Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel; county engineer Steve Berlucchi; Oak Bluffs highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr., and Oak Bluffs shellfish constable David Grunden also came.
"This is part of a new philosophy on the part of MassHighway, where they are turning to the community at an earlier stage in planning and are looking for sustained involvement," said Ms. Loberg.
From the outset, Islanders have urged the state's engineers to think comprehensively about the project. And because of the hefty price tag for the temporary bridge, many asked if the money could be better spent maintaining the existing bridge while pursuing plans for the permanent structure.
Officials in shellfish and water quality management here also worry the temporary bridge will threaten the health of Lagoon Pond. And some fear that the construction of a temporary bridge would preclude options for the design and siting of the permanent one.
Mr. London said Islanders must now assess the risks involved in forgoing the temporary bridge and decide what the Island values most in the design of the permanent replacement.
"It may be that in order to solve certain boating problems it might cause environmental problems, or the reverse. Shifting the site of the bridge might open up all kinds of options. We need to understand them all, consider the tradeoffs and decide what we want," said Mr. London.
The group will meet again with MassHighway in about six weeks.
In a Feb. 5 letter to Rep. Eric T. Turkington about the project, MassHighway commissioner John Cogliano wrote that the department does not foresee "any specific problems that would be either exacerbated or created by the construction of a temporary bridge."
Mr. Cogliano said the permitting and environmental studies will take a substantial amount of time, further justifying the need for the interim bridge.
The MassHighway commissioner concluded: "We do not believe the existing bridge will service boater and vehicular traffic long enough to design, permit and construct the permanent bridge without the use of a temporary bridge. Please be assured that the intent of the temporary bridge is not to be a ‘quasi-permanent' solution, but to minimize impacts to the local community during this process."