It's already being called the "drop-and-go" approach. Eager to make the transit hub in West Tisbury center look more like just another bus stop, town and transit leaders this week agreed to trim the amount of time that buses linger on the village main street.
To avoid lag time in town, bus drivers on any of the four routes that converge in West Tisbury are under orders to kill time on the way. And if they pull up to Alley's General Store too early, they're supposed to drop their passengers, go for a spin around the block with an empty bus and return a few minutes later to pick up riders transferring from another bus.
Pitched as a 12-day trial, the new plan went into effect yesterday. The latest in a series of efforts over the last year and a half to deal with complaints about transit buses in the narrow town center, it was crafted in back-to-back meetings this week between selectmen and officials from the Martha's Vineyard Regional Transit Authority (VTA).
The agreement comes just a few weeks after selectmen adopted a much tougher stance, voting unanimously to start negotiations with the VTA to get the transfer hub entirely out of downtown, an area many critics say is a bottleneck of traffic on State Road made worse by buses.
But selectman and treasurer Cynthia Mitchell this week sought to clarify her board's position.
"There's a wrong perception that people want the buses out of West Tisbury," she said. "We are fine with bus stops on State Road in the center of town, and we're fine with people. It's the transfer station without walls that we're having a problem with. When four buses come into town at the same time, whether ganged up together or spread out, that's when we have a problem."
Ridership on West Tisbury routes in July was nearly double what it was the previous year in the same month. On routes connecting down-Island towns to West Tisbury, there were more than 30,000 riders, compared to some 16,000 the year before.
In August, Glenn Hearn, chairman of the town bus subcommittee, said the buses had no place in a historic town center, citing the "hordes of people waiting and loitering" with nothing to do.
But there was a new tone in this week's discussion. Andrew Grant, transportation planner at the VTA, said, "It was a huge change. The bus committee folks had told us it was the buses and the people that were a problem. But the selectmen backed off that. No one was talking about getting rid of a bus stop in front of Alley's."
Mrs. Mitchell also acknowledged the shift. "I'm confident that selectmen and the VTA can work together on this," she said. "It's felt adversarial, and it doesn't need to be."
While Mrs. Mitchell in the past has questioned how effective the VTA has been in reducing Island traffic levels, this week she embraced the transit authority and her town's role in the regional effort.
"It's very clear from ridership that this configuration appears to be working. Ridership is exploding," she said. "The routes they have are agreeing with people."
Both transit and town officials agreed this week to hold off any serious talk about relocating the hub to the airport, an idea endorsed last month by the bus subcommittee.
The focus remained on the timing of buses. "We said we don't want to tell you how to run a transit authority," said Mrs. Mitchell. "But what we're after is to have no buses waiting in the village."
Four buses come into town around the half-hour, two from up-Island and two from down-Island. According to the bus schedule, the ride from Edgartown or Vineyard Haven to Alley's General Store is supposed to take between 22 and 25 minutes, followed by a layover of four to six minutes in the village center.
But if they make better time on the road, that layover time is even longer. West Tisbury selectmen want none of that, and the solution being tried right now calls for a combination of changes, all aimed at eliminating any buses sitting idle in town.
One tool will be "a kill-time loop," said Mr. Grant. Drivers with time on their hands won't get out to stretch their legs or have a smoke. Instead, they'll put the bus back in drive, head down State Road, up Edgartown Road, down Old County and back around on Scotchman's Bridge.
"They go to Alley's, drop off and then disappear," said Mr. Grant.
While that might satisfy some bus critics in West Tisbury, folks at the VTA are concerned that the practice could not only confuse riders but also make their bus drivers a little grumpy to lose their break time on the shady village sidewalks.
"The bigger part of it is that drivers are not there to give information out to passengers waiting for the bus," said Angela Gompert, VTA administrator. "There's a level of stress for those not familiar with the system, and they need reassurance from the driver."
Mr. Grant said that some riders waiting for a transfer could see their bus take off on a kill-time loop and worry that they've missed their connection.
"This is not a solution we can live with in the summer," said Ms. Gompert. "I don't think five minutes in the town center is an outrageous amount of time."
Police support will be part of the trial period for the new plan. "We'll be monitoring the situation," said Mrs. Mitchell. "It's not just, ‘Let's hope it works.' We're going to be out there looking and seeing why it works or doesn't."