Drawbridge Committee Advocates Outside Study

By James Kinsella

Over the objections of the county engineer, the Lagoon Pond Drawbridge Committee on Wednesday recommended that Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs fund an $11,700 study of what, if anything, can be done to prolong the use of the existing drawbridge.

The committee voted 4-1, with county engineer Steve Berlucchi dissenting and Martha's Vineyard Commission executive director Mark London abstaining, to back a study of mitigation measures at the bridge, which is a key linchpin in the Vineyard road network. The bridge links the two towns along Beach Road and is a key artery to the Island's only hospital.

The study, to be undertaken by Lichtenstein Consulting Engineers Inc. of Paramus, N.J., also would explore contingency plans in case the state decides to close the bridge or if the drawbridge fails in the raised position.

The vote is the latest skirmish in what has become an extended battle over what would be the best course of action for the towns to pursue for the drawbridge, which the Massachusetts Highway Department says is deteriorating to the point where safety concerns may force its closure.

The state wants to build a temporary drawbridge to keep the route open before putting a permanent drawbridge in place. The temporary bridge would cost $5 million; the permanent bridge would cost $24 million. But some Vineyard residents want the state to proceed directly to the construction of the permanent bridge, while somehow keeping the existing drawbridge in service.

The matter now moves to the boards of selectmen in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, each of which will be asked to provide $7,000 in funding to cover the study and possible additional costs.

Funding is likely from Vineyard Haven, where the town selectmen have been among the leaders in questioning the temporary bridge. But funding is less certain in Oak Bluffs, where selectmen have differed on the issue.

Mr. Berlucchi said he voted against the study because he sees it as a waste of taxpayer money.

"I'm not in favor of another consultant coming in," Mr. Berlucchi said, noting that both the state and private consultants hired by the state have agreed in recent years that the bridge is badly deteriorating. The consultants, he said, have included Lichtenstein.

Mr. Berlucchi said the state is an expert on bridge safety. "I don't believe any more information is required," he said.

He also said the two towns would be opening themselves up to paying for monitoring of the current bridge during the bridge replacement process, which could go on for seven more years. "It doesn't make any sense to me," he said.

As for a contingency plan involving what to do in the event of a bridge closure, he said that any such plan must be approved by Mass Highway, which owns the bridge.

But one committee member who voted in favor of a mitigation and contingency study called it a worthwhile move.

"There is an undercurrent of distrust in Mass Highway's statements about the condition of the bridge," said Melinda Loberg of Vineyard Haven.

Ms. Loberg said the state has not maintained the bridge in a scrupulous fashion over the years, and she said the drawbridge committee is asking a slightly different question in recommending the study. "Is there a better way of assessing the risk of leaving the bridge intact?" she said.

Ms. Loberg said the committee must perform due diligence in its analysis of the bridge situation before making recommendations to the two towns. In that light, she said, "I think this is money well-spent in the short term. I think it's a drop in the bucket."

At the regular selectmen's meeting in Oak Bluffs on Tuesday there was a preview of the debate to come.

Selectman Kerry Scott favored a consultant review.

"I think there is a huge need for an outside opinion," Ms. Scott said. "People are scared. The only way to quiet fears is to get an outside opinion. There are lots of ways of looking at things. If it is Tisbury's utter conviction that this is the way to go, then we need to work with them."

But selectman Roger Wey disagreed.

"I feel strongly we should go forward with a temporary bridge," Mr. Wey said. "I'm ready to make a decision for a temporary bridge and move forward."

Board chairman Gregory Coogan counseled caution.

"How much are we willing to put out of pocketbook?" he asked. "The original price tag was $6,000. If we're going to throw money at it, we need to be careful."

Gazette staff writer Rachel Kovac contributed to this story.