Plans to build a roundabout at the blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs are back on the front burner, and on Wednesday this week representatives from the Massachusetts Highway Department and the engineering and construction firm Greenman Pedersen Inc. made their case, saying it will save lives, improve traffic and even cut down on emissions. Just don’t call it a rotary, they said.
“A rotary is not a roundabout,” said John Diaz of Greenman Pedersen. Mr. Diaz clarified the difference during a public hearing that was scheduled to discuss the so-called 25 per cent plan for the controversial improvement at the intersection of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven and Barnes Roads. In 2006 the Oak Bluffs selectmen approved the installation of the roundabout, but the project has been dormant since then, awaiting state funds. It is also no longer a blinker intersection, but now a four-way stop sign intersection.
Tom Currier of the Massachusetts Highway Department said on Wednesday that the project will cost $1.1 million and will be paid for through a combination of state and federal money. And he pressed the distinction between a roundabout and a rotary.
“The whole difference is in a rotary you are coming in tangent to the circle, there is nothing to slow you down and you basically have a straight shot coming in and you have to weave with the traffic going around the circle,” Mr. Diaz explained. “In a roundabout you are coming in virtually at 90 degrees to the center of the island so you have to slow down. It’s basically a right turn.”
Mr. Currier said the roundabout will be completed over three construction seasons — there is no construction during the summer — or one year. It will go out to bid in November of this year. The design plan calls for four permanent easements and five temporary easements. The majority of the easements are on Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank property, which land bank commissioner Priscilla Sylvia said her board had already voted to grant for the project. Mr. Diaz said the state would not have to take any private property to complete the project.
For the majority of the evening the efficacy and necessity of roundabouts was put on trial by a group of concerned citizens, many of whom argued that a traffic light would suffice. Mr. Diaz explained that the intersection does not meet the Massachusetts Highway department’s qualifications for installing a traffic light, one of which is the presence of a large volume of traffic over an eight-hour period. And he argued that roundabouts were safer than traffic lights, pointing to statistics that show in areas where roundabouts had been installed traffic injuries had dropped 75 per cent and fatalities had dropped 90 per cent.
“The worst thing that can happen on a single lane roundabout is, you know, that European Vacation thing where you keep circling around,” said Mr. Diaz.
The state average for accidents per million vehicles entering intersections similar to that at the blinker is .55, he said. From 2006 to 2008 the state recorded a rate of .83 at the blinker, a number that reflects 12 accidents. Mr. Diaz also said that traffic lights were almost, if not just as expensive to install as roundabouts and would require regular maintenance. Plus they use electricity.
“There are no working parts with a roundabout,” he said.
For Vineyarders concerned about befuddled tourists unfamiliar with the bay state’s traffic doughnuts, Mr. Currier said there was nothing to worry about, citing some 2,500 roundabouts nationwide.
“Rotaries are a New England thing, roundabouts are not,” he said. Apart from their safety features, roundabouts would also help ease traffic congestion in the area, especially in the summer when traffic wait times at peak hours would drop from 415 seconds down to 20 seconds at the most.
Some people were unconvinced. “So you have to wait for a couple extra seconds with the blinker,” said Patricia Bergeron of Oak Bluffs. “Who cares?”
Others voiced concerns that improved traffic conditions at the intersection would lead to even worse congestion at either end of the road, a point Mr. Currier did not refute.
“We’re not attempting to solve all the traffic problems on Martha’s Vineyard with this intersection improvement,” he said. “What we are trying to do is make this a safer, better functioning intersection.”
Ms. Bergeron remained skeptical.
“I don’t know if you know but the town of Oak Bluffs has no money, I don’t think the federal government has any money and I don’t think the state of Massachusetts has any money, so we’re all very concerned,” she said. “So, yes maybe we need to do something there, but $1 million to do something where two miles down the road it doesn’t really matter one bit?”
Priscilla Sylvia said it was past time for the improvement.
“I avoid this intersection like the plague in the summertime,” she said. “We may not have had a lot of accidents but I’ve got to tell you we’ve had a lot of near misses at this intersection. I really, really, really hope we don’t choose not to use this plan.”
She said change on the Island is always controversial.
“I remember putting trees on Circuit avenue — there was a hue and cry about putting trees on Circuit avenue!” Mrs. Sylvia said. “Anything new usually requires people here to object.”
Mr. Diaz presented statistics to back up Ms. Sylvia’s assertion. A public opinion poll of Santa Barbara residents showed a highly negative opinion about roundabouts before one was constructed and a highly positive opinion shortly after it was built. He said he had seen a similar trend on Nantucket where three years ago they had installed another roundabout.
On the Vineyard negative opinion also took the form of a petition against the proposed work with 1,500 signatures that Madeline Fisher presented to the state representatives. Mr. Currier said despite the state and federal money earmarked for the project, it was a town-owned road and that selectmen could ultimately choose to nix the project. But, he warned, the town would be back at square one.
Selectman Greg Coogan, who was on the board that approved the roundabout in 2006, said that the four-way stop sign arrangement at the blinker today was an interim measure.
“I know it’s a tremendous improvement from when there was no four-way stop there but that wasn’t in my mind, and I think the board at the time certainly never expected it to be a long-term solution,” he said.
Still, some in the crowd — like Marie Larsen who described the proposed roundabout as a $1.1 million dollar solution to a problem that didn’t exist — stood their ground.
“We live here,” Mrs. Larsen said. “You guys don’t get what we’re talking about because you don’t live here. I’ve been on roundabouts, I don’t like roundabouts. There’s one in downtown Plymouth, that’s not a rotary. What do you call that?”
“That’s a traffic circle,” Mass Highway project engineer Bob Gregory replied.