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Plan for Vineyard’s first roundabout divides residents

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

One of the biggest intersections on Martha’s Vineyard - Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road and Barnes Road - could get a roundabout, which will be designed to reduce traffic accidents.

OAK BLUFFS - There are no stop lights on Martha’s Vineyard, a testament to the island’s relaxed pace and an earnest desire to protect it.

The closest thing is what residents call “the blinker intersection,’’ a four-way stop with flashing red lights that drivers navigate with a neighborly exchange of nods and waves.

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But now plans to replace a four-way stop with a roundabout - yes, a roundabout, the rotary’s more genteel sibling - has turned the nondescript crossroads into an unlikely battle line.

Many year-round residents decry the $1.3 million project as wholly unnecessary, a symbol of government waste. Worse, many say a roundabout at the intersection of Barnes Road and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road would chip away at the island’s distinctive character and make it a bit more like the mainland people come here to escape.

“It’s a big-city solution,’’ said Sandra Lippens, who lives at the crossroads in question, not far from the center of Oak Bluffs. “People don’t come here for roundabouts. This is a special place, and enough has already been done to change it.’’

Local and state officials say the single-lane roundabout will streamline traffic at the junction, which in the summer often becomes snarled, and make the intersection appreciably safer.

The state transportation department, which is assuming the entire cost of the project, said several traffic studies showed that the four-way stop was not an appropriate long-term solution for a “high-crash’’ location.

From 2006 and 2008, there were 12 collisions, an accident rate higher than the state average at unsignaled intersections. Three involved injuries.

The type of accidents - seven rear-end crashes and four from the side - show a need for improved traffic control, said Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the state transportation department.

The roundabout would allow drivers to enter the circle after yielding to oncoming cars, but unlike a rotary, would require a tight entering turn that should keep speeds under 20 miles per hour.

“This is absolutely about safety,’’ said Chris Murphy, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the island’s planning agency.

The chairwoman of the Oak Bluffs Board of Selectmen, Kathy Burton, said she believes the roundabout will be far safer than the four-way stop, where confusion often trumps courtesy.

“People don’t know the rules anymore, so you just look for some indication and hope,’’ she said. “Every time I go through there’s some kind of shenanigan.’’

Burton said her teenage daughter was almost hit recently by a car that entered the intersection just behind another car.

Fears that a roundabout will alter the island’s identity are unfounded, Burton said.

“I don’t want to pave paradise to put up a parking lot either,’’ she said. “But this is a circle of grass. I don’t know how that changes things.’’

The commission and selectmen in Oak Bluffs have approved the plan, and construction is scheduled to begin this fall.

But opponents hold out hope they can scuttle the project, saying it “solves a problem that doesn’t exist.’’ They have gathered enough signatures to force referendums in all six island towns this spring, although the ballot measures are nonbinding.

Even though Vineyarders are not paying for the project, many view it as wasteful.

“Surely there is another town and another project somewhere in Massachusetts that needs improvement more than this,’’ said Susanna Sturgis, a leading opponent who lives in West Tisbury.

The roundabout has a long, meandering history. About a decade ago, the intersection was converted to a four-way stop after a series of accidents. The four-way stop cut down on accidents and made it easier for drivers on Barnes Road to turn onto the busier Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

Many residents assumed the matter was settled, but local leaders and traffic consultants considered the four-way stop only a short-term solution. The idea of a traffic light was discussed, but only briefly.

“Nobody wanted a traffic light. That was a given,’’ Murphy said. “ . . . That was a line in the sand.’’

Instead, selectmen in Oak Bluffs voted for a roundabout, then submitted the plan to state transportation officials. The recent controversy arose last year when the state held public meetings about the plan, surprising residents who thought the idea had been shelved. The matter was eventually referred to the island commission, which last fall narrowly backed the project. Two towns - West Tisbury and Edgartown - sued to overturn the commission’s decision, but eventually dropped the joint complaint.

The debate has deepened a number of political divides on the island, including rifts between Oak Bluffs and its neighbors and between towns and the commission.

Murphy defended the commission’s support for Oak Bluff’s decision, saying it hewed to a long-standing tradition of local control.

“In a case like this, it has always been up to the town,’’ he said.

But opponents say the crossroads represents just that, a clear choice on what kind of place the Vineyard should be.

“This is the heart of the island, and over the years, this road has been widened, and widened again,’’ said Madeline Fisher, who has lived her whole life here. “Now they want to put in a circle? Finally we decided to say something.’’

Others say traffic at the intersection only backs up in the summer, and that year-round residents have learned to avoid it.

“It’s not like we have summer traffic here all year round,’’ said Arthur Smadbeck, selectman in Edgartown. “And traffic is in the mind of the beholder. We’re hoping saner heads prevail.’’

At the intersection last week, a steady flow of cars passed through with little incident. The occasional driver jumped the queue, and some hesitated as they surveyed the situation. But with eye contact and hand signals, it generally ran smoothly.

As they stood watching the traffic, opponents said a roundabout would extend delays and cause more accidents because drivers on Barnes Road will have a hard time entering the main flow of traffic.

“It would basically take us back to the two-way stop,’’ said Richard Knabel, selectman in West Tisbury.

Several drivers honked their support as they passed, and one rolled down his window to express his opinion.

“See?’’ he shouted as he made a left turn. “It works fine!’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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