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After 10 years, Highway 20 project near Arnold Road to begin

A road project to improve the safety of a stretch of Highway 20 where a young Anacortes woman was killed this month will begin in mid-2011.

After more than 10 years of planning and at nearly double the expected cost, the Washington State Department of Transportation will undertake a project to improve visibility and reduce the road curve of Highway 20 around the intersection with Arnold Road.

The estimated $9.5-million construction project is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2011 and be completed the following fall. It will alter the angles of the Arnold Road intersection with Highway 20; straighten sharp curves to improve sight distance; and move utility poles and remove trees to create a “clear zone” in case motorists drive off the road, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Highway 20 between Libbey Road and Sidney Street has been the site of numerous injuries and three fatalities due to automobile wrecks over the past five years. Most recently, 26-year-old Alexis Gilman of Anacortes died in a car accident the morning of Sept. 17. Trooper Keith Leary from the Washington State Patrol said the cause of the accident is still under investigation, but that poor visibility from the heavy fog and speed may have been contributing factors. Troopers say Gilman’s Cabriolet crossed over the centerline and collided with a pickup.

Ninety collisions from 2005 to 2009 have occurred on Highway 20 from Sidney Street to Libbey Road. Of that amount, 18 resulted in injuries and 48 resulted in some form of property damage, according to WSDOT.

The causes of the accidents varied, including vehicles exceeding a reasonable safe speed (41), driving under the influence of drugs/alcohol (10), driver inattention (5), and failure to yield right of way (5).

WSDOT still has work to complete before the project can go out to bid. Todd Harrison, assistant regional administrator, said staff has to negotiate six right-of-way purchases.

Planning to improve the safety of Highway 20 began in 1999; however, a number of factors stalled the project over the years. WSDOT saw a funding loss in 1999 when voters approved Initiative 695 which limited car tabs to $30.

Because the stretch of Highway 20 in the San de Fuca area lies within the boundaries of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, WSDOT officials had to negotiate with the National Park Service to make sure construction projects had a minimal effect on the historical and cultural features of the reserve.

By 2006, the estimated $5-million project had ballooned to $20 million to make improvements to the road and to meet the requirements to preserve historical and cultural aspects of the area surrounding the highway while accomplishing goals of the safety project.

Dustin Terpening, WSDOT spokesman, said that the economic climate at the time also caused estimates to spike. Construction, materials and gasoline prices at the time were going through the roof, he said.

Harrison said that staff worked to scale back the project to focus resources in an area that would allow for the “biggest bang for our dollars.”

Even with the scaled back project, WSDOT officials have to negotiate with the park service and Native American tribes to ensure the changes don’t impact historic and cultural features.

The National Park Service signed off on the project in February 2010, which allowed transportation officials to start negotiations with local property owners for right-of-way purchases. The park service approval is required by the National Historic Preservation Act.

Terpening said WSDOT hopes to start advertising the project next spring and construction will begin soon after.

Meanwhile, WSDOT has made smaller safety improvements on the highway, namely, work crews installed rumble strips along the centerline in 2009.

Harrison said there currently isn’t any money available to improve the remaining stretch of Highway 20 in San de Fuca from Arnold Road to Libbey Road.

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