All Change Is Not Created Equal

Over and over opposition to the roundabout has been explained away as “people don’t like change.”

To which I say that “people” — which is to say me — don’t like having change shoved down our throats by people who don’t know what they’re doing. But “people don’t like change” and its corollary, “change is inevitable,” are hurled about often enough that I’m getting a little testy. These aren’t explanations. These are excuses.

Sure, some change is inevitable. New inventions bring change. Some books and works of art bring change. No one can stop the changes being wrought by the internet. I don’t have a cell phone, I don’t want a cell phone, but I have no illusion that my decision is having any effect on the changes being wrought by cell phones. Governments who try to restrict access to the internet look like the tyrants they are, and more to the point, they fail. Same goes for those who try to ban particular books, or “smut,” or liquor.

But many changes have more modest causes. They don’t come like tidal waves. The roundabout has a traceable trajectory. It’s not a force of nature. It’s not the result of economic forces beyond our individual control. It’s not a technological innovation that everyone craves as soon as they hear about it. The roundabout project has come this far thanks to the actions and choices of a small number of individuals.

Back in the early 2000s, there was a two-way stop at the blinker intersection. Traffic on the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road proceeded at will. Traffic on Barnes Road had to wait for an opening. Because of the volume and speed of the east–west traffic, especially at peak times, this could take a while. Frustrated north–south drivers grabbed whatever little break they got. The result was accidents, some of which were serious because of the speed involved.

In 2001 Oak Bluffs asked the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to explore alternatives to the two-way stop. One of them was the roundabout. In 2003 the four-way stop was instituted. The “crash rate” (as the engineers call it) dropped dramatically, and most of the accidents that did happen were fender-benders.

Exploration of alternatives continued. In 2004, petitions containing the signatures of more than 1,600 Vineyarders opposed to the roundabout option were presented to the Oak Bluffs selectmen. The BOS then asked the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) to collect data and compare alternatives. Note that Mark London became MVC executive director in October 2002. He’s a roundabout guy. The timing is significant.

During the summer of 2006, the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen held three public hearings on the roundabout proposal. These were Oak Bluffs hearings. Petitions containing another 1,400+ signatures were presented — and ignored. In September 2006, the OB BoS voted for the roundabout. The vote was 3–2: not exactly a landslide. In the town meeting system of government, town meeting serves as the legislature, but the roundabout never appeared on an Oak Bluffs town meeting warrant. The selectmen chose to treat it like a minor highway repair: no need to bother the voters with such a trivial matter, eh?

Besides, the Oak Bluffs selectmen were already working hand in glove with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission — the MVC staff, that is. The commissioners themselves, most of whom are either elected directly by the voters or appointed by our elected officials, seemed oblivious. This appears on the MVC website:

Primary authority under the Act is vested in the Martha’s Vineyard Commission whose mission is to help carefully manage growth so that the Vineyard’s unique environment, character, social fabric and sustainable economy are maintained as development takes place.

Did it never occur to any of the commissioners that this wasn’t just a routine one-town highway repair project? Mark London and the MVC staff aren’t elected by anyone. Voters in Aquinnah, Chilmark, West Tisbury, Tisbury, and Edgartown didn’t elect the Oak Bluffs selectmen. Who was representing the rest of the island — including the more than 2,600 Vineyarders who signed those petitions — in this?

At this point the roundabout went underground. Most of us thought it had gone away for good. In 2010 the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen signed a contract with MassDOT: the state would both run the project and pay for it. For a town with OB’s financial and managerial problems, this was important. The voters, i.e., town meeting, hold the purse strings. If the state was paying, the selectmen didn’t have to explain themselves to the voters.

The roundabout resurfaced with a vengeance this past April. It looked like a done deal, a fait accompli. It wasn’t. Richard Knabel, West Tisbury selectman, was astonished that it had never been considered as an island-wide development of regional impact (DRI). He initiated the process that led at last to DRI consideration by the MVC. What happened next has been covered in this blog: see the blography in yesterday’s post, “Goofs Don’t Have to Be Forever.”

Some people are furious that the West Tisbury selectmen made that “discretionary referral.” As far as I know, these people don’t stand to benefit in any material way from the roundabout project; the construction contracts will, as usual, all go to off-island companies with off-island employees. But Richard and the rest of us opponents are repeatedly accused of getting in the way of progress and being afraid of change. Interestingly enough, those leveling the accusation seldom have specific reasons for supporting the roundabout: they’re just angry at us for getting in the way.

I’m not sure what’s going on here, but I do have a theory: Some people get really uncomfortable when other people try to shape the changes that are shaping their lives, and that discomfort not infrequently turns to anger. If you can’t stop change, there’s no point in trying, right? But if it’s possible to make changes, then maybe you should get off your duff and do something. I think the possibility pisses some people off.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference

Trip's truck pulls a U-turn at the blinker

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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