Transportation Forum Grapples with Growth; Vineyard Future Requires Thoughtful Planning

Gazette Senior Writer

The subject was transportation planning, but in the end it was a night for thinking out loud about growth and all of its attendant contradictions on an Island seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts.

"Are we going to respond to demand and build more roads and bigger ferries? Or we could ask the question a different way. We could say there's a little bit of room left on Martha's Vineyard but not much more. And we could do what Nantucket has done and make a clear declaration - we could say that we're not going to widen the roads, we're not going to meet the demand. And we could look at how we manage that," said Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

"We can talk around this table for many years and beat the air to death, but we all know what the issues are. And there are two sides to every one. The boats - are they too big or too small? What's the total buildout going to be on the Island? The problem is we have more people in the world and some of them are finding Martha's Vineyard," said Laurence A. Mercier, the recently retired highway superintendent in Edgartown.

"The day we are not any more attractive than Cape Cod, we're in trouble. It happened on the New Jersey shore, it happened on Long Island. Why do we think we're immune? We need to think about growth control as protection for our economy, not just protection for our land and natural resources," said Linda Sibley, a West Tisbury resident and member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

The comments came during a forum held Wednesday night to discuss transportation planning for the Vineyard. Held in the commission office in the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs, the forum was the first of several that will be held this year as the commission prepares to update the regional transportation plan for the Vineyard. The plan is updated every three years.

Only nine people attended the forum, but the discussion was nonetheless lively and ranged across an array of subjects, guided at times by Mr. London.

At the outset there was some skepticism around the table about the value of developing one more planning document.

"We have an economic development plan, a land use plan, a facilities plan; each one was created by an individual group with a lot of professional expertise and a lot of well meaning volunteers. But how do we connect all these plans?" said Ned Orleans, a member of the Tisbury planning board.

"In the best of all possible worlds with unlimited funds and unlimited time, we would stop everything we're doing and have a comprehensive uninterrupted planning process," Mr. London replied. "But in reality we have to move ahead as opportunities are available to us. We have a bit of money coming to us for transportation planning, so we will do that now."

The transportation plan update will involve an array of technical work including modeling, demand forecasting and demographic analysis.

"Scenarios are not the same as visions. We're not out to develop a blue sky vision. We are trying to be realistic as opposed to Utopian," said commission staff planner David Wessling.

"I want to get right to the end: Is the road system adequate to handle buildout, and if the answer is no, then what are we going to do? If the answer is yes and we just have to go a little slower - then is the community willing to handle that?" said Leonard Jason Jr., a Chilmark resident and county commissioner.

Ideas were tossed around for bypass roads in Vineyard Haven and solutions for the blinker light including a roundabout and a four-way stop. Mr. Mercier said he was skeptical about four-way stops but became a convert after they were installed around Edgartown with success.

"We could say Five Corners is always going to be congested, but there is going to be a shortcut road for only bus use. Where do you want the funnel to be? Do you want to limit the capacity of the ferry?" said Mr. London.

Vineyard Steamship Authority governor Kathryn A. Roessel said the current planning work aimed at replacing the ferry Islander is an important piece of the long-range transportation plan.

"We're talking about planning to achieve something, not just a gut reaction," observed Christopher Smith, a Tisbury resident who attended the session.

"We really have to make up our minds whether we want to be an Island or whether we want the Steamship Authority to function as a pseudo-bridge. We have to make up our minds," said Mrs. Sibley.

"Let's lay out the options for the public and let the public decide," said Mr. Orleans. "Facts, assumptions, options, impacts. That's the way we're going to get the political will on the Island, is by informing the members of the public about their options and letting them make the decision."

The next forum will be held in March.