Lagoon Pond Drawbridge Slated for a Second Look; Selectmen Appeal to State

By James Kinsella
Gazette Senior Writer

Growing deeply dissatisfied with the state's proposed two-bridge solution to the ailing Lagoon Pond drawbridge, Vineyard representatives are now planning to go straight to the top and seek a meeting with the newly named state transportation secretary to see if an alternative can be found.

The decision to make direct contact with Secretary John Cogliano, who has Island ties, came at Wednesday's meeting of the Lagoon Pond drawbridge committee.

The impetus for committee members who want to press their case in Boston stems from a principal fear: that the temporary bridge proposed by the state will remain in use far longer than what state transportation officials have promised.

A number of Island officials, including Tisbury selectmen, want to find a way to keep the existing bridge in operation while building a new bridge alongside the current one.

A group of Vineyarders is also circulating a petition, lobbying the state to build just one replacement bridge and not two.

But the view from Boston is decidedly different.

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State highway engineers argue that the clock is ticking on the current bridge and that any further delays in the process will increase the risk that the current bridge will become unsafe. At that point, state officials would close the bridge, possibly shutting down a vital Island traffic artery for years.

The assessment of the current bridge is that it would likely remain safe for the three years - enough time to complete construction of a temporary bridge in place.

Steve McLaughlin, a state highway engineer, has told Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, that the current bridge is unlikely to last for the six to eight years needed to build a permanent replacement.

The Massachusetts Highway Department (MassHighway) has agreed to provide the drawbridge committee with complete versions of the last three inspection reports.

Meanwhile, state officials anticipate that the necessary permits to proceed with the temporary bridge will be secured by the end of this year. Construction could start in January.

Openly skeptical about the state analysis, drawbridge committee members have recommended that Tisbury and Oak Bluffs selectmen pursue an independent engineering assessment of the drawbridge.

Committee members also will ask the Vineyard police and fire chiefs to begin discussing contingency plans in case the bridge fails.

The committee, formed to provide a Vineyard voice in the drawbridge replacement project, includes Tisbury and Oak Bluffs town officials as well as other Island residents.

The state, which owns the drawbridge, is ready to consider a one-bridge solution so long as the boards of selectmen in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs agree to bear the responsibility for a potential bridge failure.

"Some time ago, we received written support from both towns," said Jon Carlisle, a spokesman for the state executive office of transportation and construction. "Nobody forced them to do it."

Committee members are now angling for a meeting on the drawbridge with Mr. Cogliano, whose sister works for the Oak Bluffs council on aging. Oak Bluffs selectman Kerry Scott said Mr. Cogliano also has a reputation for sensitivity to local concerns.

Melinda Loberg, chairman of the drawbridge committee, said: "It would be worth it for the higher-ups to at least review the situation."

The state, in the so-called two-bridge solution, proposes building a temporary drawbridge along the existing bridge, and then building a new permanent bridge in the location of the existing bridge.

That scenario involves spending at least $29.5 million: $5.5 for construction of the temporary bridge, and another $24 million for construction of the permanent bridge.

MassHighway's most recent engineering report card on the bridge, from last October, gave it low marks. The report describes the condition of the deck as serious and the condition of the superstructure and substructure as poor.

One piece of good news is that the drawbridge's troubled lift mechanism - whose failure has been posited as either closing the bridge or cutting off boat access to Lagoon Pond - is not central to whether the bridge stays in operation. Mr. Carlisle said barge cranks could be substituted if necessary to keep the drawbridge going up and down.

Structural issues aside, Vineyard committee members continue to scrutinize the plan for a temporary replacement bridge.

The rising costs associated with the project, a number of representatives say, make it less likely that the state would be in any hurry to put in a new permanent bridge.

Tisbury selectmen - including Tristan Israel, who sits on the drawbridge committee - have led the charge against the state plans.

"Since the cost of this project is ballooning and few steps have been taken to further the design or construction of a permanent bridge, we are questioning our initial support for the temporary bridge solution," the board wrote in a March 29 letter to state Sen. Robert O'Leary.

"We realize that the hour is getting late, but there is still time to step back. Initial fears that we are going to be left with a temporary structure for many years seem to be manifesting themselves as events unfold," the letter continued.

In another development, a petition is being circulated on the Island against the two-bridge plan.

"It violates the scenic beauty of Vineyard Haven harbor and the Lagoon," the petition states.

While faulting the temporary design as overly urban and industrial, the petition also states: "With the temporary bridge in place, the project will not be a priority and funding for the permanent bridge may not be forthcoming."

Now, Oak Bluffs selectmen might join the chorus of protest. Three board members - Kerry Scott, Michael Dutton and Roger Wey - are pushing for more involvement.

"I think as a board we need to take a more active role," Mr. Dutton said at last week's meeting.

"There are implications that go right across the Island," Ms. Scott said.

"I know Tisbury is concerned about it," board chairman Gregory Coogan said. "They are looking for support from us. They feel we are as not as active."

But Mr. Coogan questioned the wisdom of adding other voices to the debate. The drawbridge committee, he said, has been a way for the Vineyard to speak to the state with one voice. Fracturing that voice, he said, was risky at a time when the state barely was listening to the Island anyway.

But Ms. Scott questioned the logic.

"To speak with one voice right now sends shivers down my spine," said the selectman. She said the board needs to foster a broader input.

Across the bridge in Vineyard Haven, Tisbury selectmen have already have already done more than dip their toes into the debate.

They have questioned state officials' safety analysis of the current bridge, cost estimates and timeliness for completion.

Selectmen suggested that the $5 million for a temporary bridge could be funneled toward an eminent domain taking of a house next to the current bridge; toward structural reinforcements to prolong the life of the existing bridge; and for compensation of businesses whose access to the pond might be blocked during a bridge closure.

But repairs won't help the basic safety issue of the bridge, given that the pilings cannot be repaired, state officials say.

Tisbury selectmen want to see the project fast-tracked.

"If we were given state assistance to expedite the funding and expedite the permitting and design process," selectmen wrote, "we would not need the eight-year time frame of Mass Highway and one bridge could be constructed."