The Evaluation of Private Roads on Nantucket

Sponsor: Nantucket Department of Public Works
Sponsor Liaison: Kara Buzanoski, Department of Public Works
Student Team: Rebekah Cocks, Margaret Corrigan, Aleksandra Larue
Abstract: The Town of Nantucket has 400 miles of road, of which 313 miles are privately owned. Many of these privately owned roads are poorly maintained which creates conditions that can impair emergency vehicle access. The goal of this project was to evaluate the conditions of a sample of the unpaved private roads on Nantucket, and to make recommendations for the repair and maintenance of the roads in order to ensure the safe passage of emergency vehicles. The team accomplished this goal by developing an evaluation protocol and systematically evaluating a sample of the private roads on Nantucket. The team then used the data to develop cost estimates and priorities for fixing the roads.
Link: Evaluating_Nantucket_Roads_Final_Report_

Executive Summary

On Nantucket, 78% of the roads are either privately owned or have undetermined ownership, and the lack of requirements for regular maintenance means that many of the private roads are in a substandard state. The Nantucket Department of Public Works and the Fire Department recognize that surface imperfections and height and width restrictions pose substantial problems for emergency vehicle access on the island but, prior to this project, they had not conducted a systematic evaluation of the condition of the private roads.

The goal of the project was to evaluate the condition of a sample of the unpaved private roads on Nantucket and to make recommendations for the repair and maintenance of the roads in order to ensure the safe passage of emergency vehicles. The project team:

  1. Clarified the nature of private roads and concerns about their condition and maintenance through background research;
  2. Identified the range of methods used to evaluate the conditions of private roads;
  3. Developed road evaluation tools and protocols to assess the condition of private roads in Nantucket;
  4. Implemented the evaluation protocol developed for the Nantucket private roads;
  5. Evaluated the options to bring the private roads into compliance; and,
  6. Recommended appropriate strategies and priorities.


The team surveyed a sample of 38 private roads identified by the Nantucket Fire Department as known trouble spots. Eighteen of the roads surveyed were classified as a three on the team’s rating scale in terms of surface condition because they had severe road condition problems that rendered the roads impassable by an emergency vehicle, seven were classified as a two on the priority scale because they had moderate road conditions that would slow down emergency vehicles, ten were classified as a one because they had small surface imperfections and two were classified as a zero, indicating that they had no surface imperfections.

The team also found that all 38 of the roads evaluated would restrict emergency access to some extent due to narrowness and 26 roads were classified as completely impassable due to narrowness. The overhead clearance along the roads was also classified, but this was found to not be a major issue and any branches that were a problem would be easily removed during brush cutting to fix the width problems.

The project team evaluated the priority of the roads based upon the above factors but also by quantifying at the road’s importance, total residential volume, and year-round residential volume through the use of a similar rating system used for the surface condition, width and overhead clearance. The importance was determined based upon the following:

  • Whether the road was a connector between two major public roads;
  • How many side streets were only accessible from that street; and
  • Whether the road was an access point for a beach or another point of public interest.

The project team built a database in Microsoft Access to apply rating values and compute an overall priority value for each road, which was then used to develop a prioritized list of roads. The estimated cost to repair the roads was calculated using cost factors provided by the DPW. The priority ranking, ID number, road name, prioritization value, and total cost are seen in the table below.

During the course of the fieldwork, the project team encountered several other issues that hamper effective emergency response. Many properties had inaccurate addresses and many roads have never been completed and exist only as ‘paper roads.’ The team encountered various areas of the island, especially Tom Nevers, where roads had not been fully developed and thus created address and access issues.


Conclusions and Recommendations

The evaluation indicated that 29 of the sample of 38 private roads were considered impassable on at least one section due to either narrowness or poor surface condition. By extrapolation, the team concludes that the conditions of many of the other private roads on Nantucket are likely to render them impassable or greatly increase the response time for emergency vehicles. Thus they are a threat to public safety. The conditions of the private roads do not just impact the Fire Department and the DPW; they have a greater impact on the people who live on the roads because in case of an emergency, the emergency response team may be unable to access their house.

The 38 roads the team was able to evaluate during their time on Nantucket is only a fraction of the 580 private roads on Nantucket and thus there are many other roads that need to be evaluated. During their time on the island, the project group observed many private roads that were not on their list. Some of these additional roads were in good conditions and many others were in poor condition.

Through their research and evaluation, the team has concluded that there are many factors that increase emergency response time on the private roads on Nantucket. An increased response time can mean the difference between life and death and thus the roads need to be repaired. With these conclusions, the team recommends:

  1. The Town develops a short-term strategy and timeline to fix the roads that are of top priority;
  2. The Town reach out to homeowners and Homeowners Associations to ensure they understand their responsibilities for the maintenance and repair of the private roads
  3. The Town work with the homeowners associations, the Fire Department and The Roads and Rights of Way committee to ensure they understand their responsibilities for maintenance and upkeep of private roads;
  4. The DPW continue to use the protocols and database developed by the project team to evaluate and prioritize other roads on an ongoing basis; and
  5. The Town develops a strategy to correct inaccuracies in the address data.

The safety of the general public is at stake because of the current conditions of the private roads. The recommendations above identify the steps the Town of Nantucket should take in order to remedy this situation.