Safety Concerns Prompt State Proposal to Ban Truck Traffic Over Drawbridge

Gazette Senior Writer

In an ongoing effort to ease the pounding on the troubled Lagoon Pond drawbridge, heavy trucks may be routed through the blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs or even through West Tisbury this summer.

MassHighway plans to ask selectmen in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs to help designate a truck route to divert such trucks away from the drawbridge, according to Fred LaPiana, the Tisbury director of public works.

Mr. LaPiana said he anticipates that the two boards will receive the request in a letter any day now from the bridge maintenance section at MassHighway's District 5, which has responsibility for state highways in southeastern Massachusetts.

The drawbridge, which is failing and slated for replacement in a state project to begin this fall, sporadically has trouble closing after opening to allow boats to pass through, including an incident earlier this month. Mr. LaPiana said an inspection by state officials revealed that the passage of heavy trucks is causing the bridge to shift.

Members of the Joint Transportation Committee, which advises the Martha's Vineyard Commission on roads and traffic, and the Oak Bluffs-Tisbury drawbridge committee, formed by those two towns to review solutions for the drawbridge, already have been discussing creation of a route to keep big trucks off the bridge.

The drawbridge has been deteriorating for years. MassHighway periodically has closed the bridge for repairs amidst concerns that the structure might become inoperable, including a stint for several days this past winter.

Closure of the bridge, a main artery leading to Martha's Vineyard Hospital in Oak Bluffs, almost immediately creates traffic jams at the blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs. Discussion of the truck route comes as traffic congestion on the Vineyard builds to its annual summer height.

Discussion about a replacement for the bridge began several years ago. Estimated costs for both bridges are about $5 million for the temporary bridge and $24 million for the permanent replacement. The temporary bridge would be built alongside the existing bridge, which would be demolished and replaced. Construction is expected to run through 2013.

Stephen F. Berlucchi, the county engineer and chairman of the Joint Transportation Committee, said the Oak Bluffs abutment supporting the bridge has been leaning toward the Vineyard Haven side for about the past decade. As a result, he said, the state over time has shaved about eight to 10 inches off the Oak Bluffs side of the bridge to ensure that the bridge still will close after it's been opened to let a boat pass through.

State officials, however, believe that any further shaving is inadvisable. Mr. Berlucchi said the issue takes on added importance in the summer months, when the heat naturally expands the bridge, much as a wooden door expands in its frame.

Mr. Berlucchi said the state is especially concerned about multi-axle cement, wood and fuel trucks.

Options are limited for trucks coming off Steamship Authority ferries at the Vineyard Haven terminal to travel farther down-Island without heading over the bridge.

The trucks can travel south on State Road, turn left at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, and then turn left at the blinker intersection to head toward downtown Oak Bluffs or continue east toward Edgartown. Or they can head south on State Road into West Tisbury, where they would either turn left onto Old County Road or continue on State Road, ultimately turning left onto Edgartown-West Tisbury Road to head down-Island.

Tisbury officials do not like the idea of a left turn at the already clogged Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road intersection. "Turning radiuses for trucks would cause havoc," Mr. LaPiana said. They further fear traffic backing up to Five Corners in downtown Vineyard Haven, not to mention at the Oak Bluffs blinker.

The West Tisbury selectmen, meanwhile, do not like the idea of big trucks being routed through their mostly rural town. They were appraised of the proposal at last week's board meeting by executive secretary Jennifer Rand.

"It seems crazy," selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter said.

But Oak Bluffs highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. said he sees value in creating a truck route. "I think that anything that can prolong the life of the bridge is a good idea," Mr. Combra said.

Mr. Combra said he could see trucks turning left at the Oak Bluffs blinker onto Barnes Road and turning left again onto County Road, reaching the shore route via Eastville avenue. He said he has discussed the idea informally with the chairman of Oak Bluffs selectmen, Duncan Ross, and anticipates that the board will take up the proposal at its meeting next Tuesday.

An additional measure to reduce the pounding on the bridge, according to Mr. Berlucchi and Melinda Loberg, chairman of the drawbridge committee, is to establish the bridge as a construction zone, even if no construction is underway. The idea is to reduce the speed of vehicles traveling over the bridge, in this case by cutting the posted speed on the bridge by 10 mph to 30 mph.

Ms. Loberg and Mr. Berlucchi said the combination of speed and heavy trucks, especially overloaded 10-wheel trucks, are most responsible for the incremental damage to the drawbridge.

The state already has posted weight restrictions on the bridge. One restriction bans four-axle vehicles weighing more than 24 tons.

The idea behind the truck route, Ms. Loberg said, is to keep the current bridge operable as long as possible, hopefully until a temporary bridge is put into place prior to the construction of a new permanent bridge. She said the temporary bridge would be able to handle any standard Massachusetts highway weight.

Ms. Loberg acknowledges that Vineyard communities would have valid concerns about being designated for a truck route. But she said the time that any such route would be in effect would be limited.

She also stressed the key role that the drawbridge plays in the Vineyard road system. "The whole Island depends on this bridge, too," she said.