Amid growing concern that a MassHighway plan to build a temporary drawbridge will threaten the health of Lagoon Pond, Island residents are calling for Oak Bluffs and Tisbury to speak with one voice when it comes to confronting state officials about the replacement for the 68-year-old bridge.
Members of the boards of selectmen in both towns this week said the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) would be a natural choice for regional leadership on the issue.
In July MassHighway unveiled preliminary plans to build a $3.8 million temporary drawbridge before beginning construction on a permanent replacement for the existing bridge. The plan calls for filling in part of the Oak Bluffs side of the Lagoon to create a base for the bridge footings, which many fear will reduce circulation in the ailing pond.
Poor water quality has been documented in the Lagoon going back as far as 1987, and this July nearly four million healthy juvenile shellfish under culture at the Lagoon Pond hatchery died because of it. When shellfish officials gathered later that month to discuss the crisis, they questioned whether additional fill for the proposed bridge would prevent adequate flushing of the pond.
Islanders will get an official hearing on the subject at a Nov. 24 hearing with MassHighway at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. This week, at public meetings and in small talk around town halls, many Islanders' general skepticism and wariness toward the project became clear.
Fred LaPiana, director of the Tisbury department of public works, has written MassHighway to criticize the proposal and urge them to seek creative solutions - including a tunnel under the channel between the two towns. "We think at face value it's worth looking at. The state must realize there are alternatives," Mr. LaPiana said.
The Lagoon Pond Association and Tisbury Waterways Inc. - groups long active in matters related to the pond - have helped form a citizens group to raise concerns about the temporary bridge and to advocate for a coordinated effort.
"We don't have a name [for the citizens group] yet, but we were stimulated by the plan that the state presented. Unless we gather our resources and speak about what we want, we won't get it," said Melinda Loberg, president of Tisbury Waterways Inc. and a member of the Tisbury harbor management committee.
She added: "We want to have a well-researched and well-thought-out statement to present to the state when they come."
MassHighway spokesman Jon Carlisle said the hearing will provide an opportunity for people to raise concerns and further comment on the plans.
He said the design is in the "25 per cent phase," which means "it is far enough along so we have an idea what the project entails, but not so far that changes can't be made to the design in accordance with the requests of the community."
The temporary bridge would be 24 feet wide - six feet narrower than the current bridge - with a cantilevered sidewalk five feet wide. It would be built out of pre-fabricated sections, which a MassHighway consultant said would be "ganged up together like Erector sets."
The plan also includes a 75-foot-high bascule tower - a device balanced so that when one end is lowered the other is raised, thus opening the bridge - which Mr. LaPiana called unacceptable.
"You can probably see all the way to Taunton from up there," he said. "Esthetically it's not in keeping with the architecture of the Vineyard, and it will significantly alter the character of the harbor."
He added: "We're afraid whatever they pose as a temporary solution will become permanent."
MassHighway has said the temporary bridge would stay in place for only three to four years.
But like Mr. LaPiana, many Islanders have expressed skepticism about the timeline. Tisbury selectman Ray LaPorte on Tuesday referenced a temporary bridge in his hometown of Lowell - a temporary bridge still in place after 20 years. Others worry the state can circumvent the usual permitting process on account of the bridge's temporary status.
County engineer Steve Berlucchi, who worked for 25 years as a state maintenance engineer, has been in contact with state officials about the project. He said yesterday the state cannot just throw up a bridge without permitting.
"There are Army Corps permits and DEP [department of environmental protection] permits the state must have," he said. "The project definitely will be scrutinized, but not held up to the same standards, so it can be expedited."
In his letter, Mr. LaPiana asks the state to consider that a tunnel would improve water circulation between the Lagoon and the harbor, while also providing an uninterrupted route between the two towns - of particular importance because of the hospital's location in Oak Bluffs.
He wrote: "We are looking for a permanent solution to be built, avoiding any impact during the tourist season, that is in keeping with the character of the Island and still maintains access for boat traffic into the Lagoon."
Mr. Carlisle said of the tunnel: "We'll take a look at any proposal, but outwardly it would seem fairly [not feasible]. Cost aside, because of cars going underneath and carbon monoxide, it would absolutely preclude the passage of bikes and pedestrians."
The citizens group so far has held only a preliminary meeting. "We've said, ‘Okay, we care about this. What can we do?'" said Ms. Loberg. "We want to bring in some experts in the field and put our heads together to make sure the needs of our communities, the two towns, the Lagoon and Vineyard Haven harbor are met."
Their first order of business was to speak with the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury selectmen about having the MVC represent the towns in their talks with the state.
"When it comes time for the hearing, we want to present viable alternatives and real questions," said Harriet Barrow, vice president of Tisbury Waterways Inc., at the Tisbury selectmen's meeting on Tuesday. "We need more than a Scotch tape approach."
"We have an opportunity to show foresight. This is a critical issue," declared Tisbury resident Miles Carpenter, a member of the citizens group. "The plan has not been thought out well enough, and we shouldn't let the state come in and ram it down our throat."
Mr. Berlucchi, who spoke to the Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday, reviewed the most recent inspection reports for the bridge.
Every two years the federal government requires that inspectors assess the deck, superstructure and substructure, or foundation, of the bridge. In 2002, the deck was rated only a step above critical condition, at which point he said MassHighway would likely close the bridge. The superstructure and substructure both received poor ratings.
"Two years earlier the substructure was still considered fair. That's an indication the substructure is on its way down - and that's what holds the whole bridge up," Mr. Berlucchi said yesterday.
Bridge tender Robert Maciel said yesterday the timber pilings - which loosen as traffic causes vibrations throughout the structure - were reinforced last winter, greatly stabilizing the bridge. He added there have been no problems of late.
Mr. Maciel has operated the bridge since 1982, and this year has opened it 458 times, in keeping with the trend of increased usage that he has seen over the years. At this time of year, Mr. Maciel only opens the bridge with 24-hour notice.
"When you're a bridge tender, you try to look all over and see what everybody else is doing, and I think the bridge is in excellent condition, considering how many years it's been here," said Mr. Maciel. "As long as we can give input into how many times the bridge is opened, and at what time of day, it could last a long, long time."
Gazette reporter Mandy Locke contributed to this story.