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Controversial West Beach Road on North Whidbey widening project goes out to bid

A shoulder widening project on North Whidbey that spawned an odd controversy and rumors of favoritism finally went out to bid this week.

Island County Commissioner Angie Homola lives next to the quarter-mile strip of West Beach Road that’s being widened to improve the safety of one of the most accident-prone roads on Whidbey Island.

Ironically, Homola’s critics have accused her of inappropriately using her influence as an elected official to push through the project when, in truth, she’s actually been a bit of an obstacle.

“Clearly it’s not a benefit to me,” Homola said, citing the increased traffic, increased traffic noise and the removal of shielding from headlights. But, she added, she “doesn’t want to stand in the way of public safety.”

The shoulder-widening, safety project was planned and placed on the six-year transportation program before Homola was elected. She consistently questioned the need for the project at public meetings. Homola championed a speed-limit reduction on the section of road. She said she had hoped that it would attenuate the need for construction, but it wasn’t completely successful.

“You certainly have challenged this project at every step,” Public Works Director Bill Oakes said to Homola during a meeting Monday.

The cost of the project, however, has increased rather sharply, partly in response to concerns from neighbors. Oakes said “a member of the Homola household” took part in the neighborhood meetings. The original cost estimate, calculated six years ago, was $390,000.

The project is being put out for bids, but the public works department estimated the cost at $600,000.

A major reason for the cost increase, Oakes said, was the addition of retaining walls to limit the taking of right of way and to protect vegetation.

Homola said the county staff members, as well as her own experience seeing accidents, convinced her of the need for the project.

Oakes said there were five “reportable accidents” on the section of West Beach Road, from Sandusky to Sunset Beach, in 2007 and four accidents in 2009. Of those nine, four were rollover accidents and the others involved a collision with a stationary object.

Oakes said the average rate of accidents in the county is 0.5 accidents per million vehicle miles. On the section of West Beach Road, the rate is about 9 accidents per million vehicle miles.

“That’s a very, very high rate for Island County considering it’s a very short stretch of road,” he said.

What’s especially worrisome about the strip of road, Oakes said, is the potential danger to bicyclists and pedestrians who frequent West Beach Road. He explained that there’s currently no shoulder and “non-motorized” traffic has to contend with about 2,000 cars a day on the stretch.

Homola was mindful of her critics and asked to table the issue at last week’s commissioners’ meeting so that Oakes could be present to explain the history of the project. The commissioners unanimously voted to send the project out for bids.

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