Oak Bluffs selectmen on Tuesday looked ahead to an unsettling future, one in which the landscape of the Island is strewn with construction sites, construction trucks and traffic jams. But instead of pondering some hypothetical or even worst-case scenario, they were staring in the face of reality.
In addition to the $45 million renovation and expansion of the Martha's Vineyard Hospital - the largest construction project in Island history - the coming years will see the construction of a 35,000-square-foot YMCA building near the regional high school and a temporary Lagoon Pond drawbridge on Beach Road near the hospital.
Then there is the permanent drawbridge replacement, a project whose cost is now climbing past the $30 million mark. And speaking of bridges, there are also plans to replace both the Little Bridge and the Big Bridge on State Road with an estimated price tag of $15 million.
There is also the $10 million plan to expand and improve the ferry terminal on Sea View avenue, as well as the new roundabout traffic circle at the blinker light intersection and a plan to install new crosswalks, curbing and sidewalks in the heart of Oak Bluffs' busy downtown corridor.
All these projects are slated to begin within the next five to ten years, although precise timetables are still in flux. Some projects are still waiting on state or federal funding, some are still in the design phase while others must clear a stringent approval process. But there is little question that construction of several of these projects will happen simultaneously.
What does it all mean?
Best-case scenario: bars, restaurants and hotels will get a boost from the army of construction workers who will descend on the Island. Worst-case scenario: a Vineyard version of the Big Dig, an apt comparison since many of the projects are proposed by MassHighway, the state department responsible for the infamous Boston boondoggle.
At their regular meeting Tuesday, Oak Bluffs selectmen considered a possible middle ground between these two scenarios - hoping for the best while advocating steps to coordinate the various projects and possibly stagger them.
It was the first time selectmen publicly confronted the glut of projects in the pipeline - and the possible impacts on their town.
"This is unprecedented for the Island, and frankly a little overwhelming," said board chairman Kerry Scott. "The volume and scope of these projects could threaten our quality of life in a very real way."
Ms. Scott, who had put the issue on the agenda, questioned how traffic will be directed through multiple construction sites.
"If someone has a heart attack in West Tisbury, they will have to get through the drawbridge construction site in one direction or the roundabout [in another direction] just to get to the hospital, which itself is under construction? At the very least these are things we have to think about. We need to get ahead of this," she said.
Ms. Scott's colleagues agreed with the concerns, but noted that all the projects are necessary and will bring needed improvements to infrastructure and essential services.
"I agree we need to keep an eye on this and try to coordinate [the various projects], but I would hate to see us go down a road where we simply say, ‘We need this, but we can't do it right now,' " selectman Duncan Ross said.
Selectman Roger Wey urged his colleagues to take the long view.
"Remember there is a long-term benefit, but there will be some bumps in the road over the next few years. But it will blow over at some point. We just have get through it," Mr. Wey said.
Selectmen agreed to have town administrator Michael Dutton work with state and local officials to try to assemble a timetable for when projects will begin and finish. Mr. Dutton said the idea is sound but may in fact be difficult to execute.
"It's kind of a moving target with a lot of these projects. There are a lot of variables," he said.
Reached the next day, county engineer Steve Berlucchi conceded that the unusually high number of projects will almost certainly cause inconvenience in the coming years.
"Obviously there are going to be problems. But we have to work through it and find a way to minimize the impact," he said.
Mr. Berlucchi said it is difficult to predict when each project will begin and end.
Ideally, he said, the temporary drawbridge will be completed in the spring of 2009 and the permanent drawbridge will be done sometime in 2013. He speculated that the roundabout would only take a few months, and could be completed by the spring or fall of 2009.
The tentative start date for the Big and Little Bridge projects is next fall, and work on new curbing and sidewalks in downtown Oak Bluffs, called the Lake Avenue improvement project, could begin either next fall or in the spring of 2009.
Of course, all of that is subject to change.
"A lot of it is still up in the air, and the best we can do is try to coordinate it the best we can. I don't think anyone looks ahead over the next few years and can say it will be easy," Mr. Berlucchi said, adding:
"When you remodel the kitchen sometimes you have to wash the dishes in the bathtub."