“The preservation of the road, its bordering hedgerows and walls, its overhanging limbs, its vistas of rolling countryside, is a matter of dollars and cents. Visitors come to the Vineyard for just such enjoyments as this noble old road offers....What it represents is what we need to keep and cherish, and when we are troubled we may well drive up and down the Middle Road and clear our thoughts to the proper order of the natural world.”

Those three sentences, from a Vineyard Gazette editorial written in 1952, go to the heart of the new proposal to protect the rural roads of Martha’s Vineyard beginning in 1997. The thesis behind the entire project is that preservation of the country roads of the Vineyard is vital to its character, its nature -- and its pocketbook.

Yet in the last 30 years, improving the main roads here has often also meant widening shoulders, cutting back trees, flinging out a constellation of reflectors and laying down heavy-duty crash barriers, all to meet the broad mainland requirements of safety that come with state or federal money.

But now there comes a small band of Island officials, conservationists and summer residents with expertise in transportation planning and with ideas about how to change all that on Martha’s Vineyard.

Last Thursday, these advocates submitted a provisional “comprehensive transportation action plan” to the elected leaders of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for a first review. What the authors of this plan are talking about is a conservation project meant to rewrite many of those rules for places like Martha’s Vineyard, setting insular standards that enhance safety but also encourage drivers to slow down and enjoy the kind of road they’re motoring on. If approved by agencies such as the Massachusetts Highway Department, steel guard rails and freeway reflector lights might one day yield to more gracious, but equally safe, tools and barriers to keep drivers on the road.

And the aim of the rural roads project goes even further than that.

If funded by Washington or Boston (or both), the endeavor will begin by studying Vineyard traffic in new ways, finding out more than the Island has ever known about who uses the roads, how often and for what reasons. It will also look far into the future, trying to get a fix on more elusive things -- how trends in building permits, car registrations, house rentals and growth in the shoulder seasons, for instance, will increase the number of cars on the roads in years to come. This will be the most comprehensive traffic study in Island history.

And the project will end by exploring creative ways to make it easier and more pleasant to travel around the Vineyard, from increasing the size and scope of the shuttle bus systems to linking together bicycle paths, walking trails and even ancient ways as an authentic “alternative transportation network.” Preserving the character of Island roads, the proposal argues, ultimately means figuring out ways to ease the burden upon them.

Recognizing that Islanders often grow suspicious whenever talk turns to regional planning or the thralldom caused by federal money, the authors say it’s vital that Vineyarders and visitors alike get many chances at every step to learn about new ideas, and to propose and review them themselves. Fully a third of the $12 million in federal and state money that the rural roads project will likely ask for is devoted to what Craig Whitaker, a planner, architect, summer resident and one of the authors of the proposal, calls “public participation.”

“We’re going to visit every single board of selectmen, every single department of public works, every single planning board, every single conservation group and every single organized business group, in addition to having general public forums. And it’s simply to forestall that problem,” he said in a recent interview.

The planners of this rural roads project got together for the first time in November 1995, alarmed by the way that road work on the Vineyard was frequently changing the look and feel of roads, up-Island and down.

The character of these roads, Mr. Whitaker said, was falling victim, in large measure, to the guidelines in something called the Green Book, a massive, thousand-page rulebook put together by a consortium of planners called the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. National standards for a scenic overlook, for an S-turn, and for a two-lane highway were being applied to road repairs on Martha’s Vineyard.

Thus a massive W-beamed galvanized steel barrier and a new mound of earth suddenly blocked the view down to the meadow and out to Vineyard Sound at the Tashmoo overlook. Another barrier of the same type sealed off the view of the old village cemetery at the S-turn in West Tisbury. Trees and the canopy they offered were being cut away along the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. Hundreds of reflectors were being buried in the road surface there and along the state highway out to Gay Head.

The people who gathered at the first meeting agreed that these changes not only robbed the Vineyard of singular charms, but perhaps also encouraged Island traffic to speed up and be less observant — in short, to behave as it would on the mainland, where similar improvements were the norm. These Vineyarders decided that evening to find out as precisely as possible whether this theory was true.

Present were Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society; Linda Sibley, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and a Dukes County commissioner; and Randi Vega, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

Also present were two summer residents of long standing, men with vast experience in the conceptual and technical arts of figuring out how to move people from one place to another in creative ways.

Dan Greenbaum, a summer resident of Chilmark, is a former managing partner of Vollmer Associates, a firm headquartered in New York that is now working on the Central Artery in Boston and the Hudson River boulevard that will replace the famous -- and failed -- Westway proposal in Manhattan.

Mr. Whitaker, a summer resident of Tisbury, runs Craig Whitaker Architects in Manhattan, recently commissioned by the City Club of New York to design a residential neighborhood for Governors Island after the Coast Guard abandons its base there in the not too distant future.

Mr. Whitaker and Mr. Greenbaum said that the working group soon realized that saving rural roads would mean researching all sorts of information about how Island traffic behaves and how it will grow. It would also mean encouraging people to travel by means other than by car, and finding out how places such as Yellowstone National Park have recently developed acceptable alternatives to Green Book standards — and, apparently, induced traffic to move more slowly and passengers to enjoy more scenery.

The project, Mr. Whitaker said, will evaluate the size and shape of roads in these country places, study every type of crash barrier, gather every sort of road reflector and fog line and actually lay out alternatives in the new agricultural hall for public examination. “Set up a chance for Vineyarders to look at all these differences,” he said, to see what they like and don’t like.

The Vineyard Conservation Society funded preliminary work on the rural roads project with a $7,000 grant, which has paid expenses only in the last two years; Mr. Whitaker and Mr. Greenbaum have given their time for free.

If the Martha’s Vineyard Commission embraces the rural roads project, it will seek funding — more than $12 million, according to Mr. Whitaker — from the federal and state governments to finance the studies, the planning and whatever building or rural modifications may follow. The meeting on Thursday was meant to brief the elected commissioners on the status of the project for the first time.

Wholesale change won’t happen all at once, Mr. Whitaker added. Utility poles will not vanish overnight, and the sheltering canopy of tree limbs won’t grow back in time for spring.

“I want to say that if this works out in 50 per cent of the cases [where rural modifications are proposed], that will be an accomplishment, and give people the chance to say we should do more of it: ‘Let’s go for another half a mile of it, because this section works, people have been educated to what the section looks like, what it’s consequences are,” he said.

“What can be permanent? We can create a rural road network, a scenic road system, that is loved and protected, that becomes a legacy people want to keep and have been empowered to know how to keep. I think the chance to see positive change which comes from political action is also something that could be a lasting legacy.”

Eulalie Regan, Vineyard Gazette librarian, contributed to this story.