News

Danger sets highway priorities

Oak Harbor leaders and residents have questioned, both publicly and privately, the state Department of Transportation’s priorities in large projects on Highway 20 on North Whidbey.

They wonder why the state would spend millions cutting down hills and widening shoulders, but not fix the most congested, accident-prone section of road in the city from Beeksma Drive to Swantown Street.

The answer from DOT officials is that rural parts of the highway are more dangerous, and therefore higher priority.

“Our priority is safety,” DOT spokesman Dave Chesson wrote in a statement. “The more rural areas have higher speeds (50 mph) and more opportunities for deadly or disabling collisions. Not to minimize collisions in the more urban areas (30 to 40 mph), but that is where many collisions are most likely to be fender benders, compared to rural areas, where we are seeing high-speed head-on collisions, vehicles running off the road and hitting fixed objects like trees, rollovers, etc.”

A comparison of accident statistics from sections of the highway chosen by the DOT for recent construction projects and accidents numbers from the Beeksma-to-Swanton section support the state’s explanation — to a point.

The problem with the comparison is that the Beeksma-to-Swantown stretch in the city is only a half mile, while the construction projects cover a stretch of road from a mile to three miles.

From 2001 to 2006, there were 225 reportable accidents on Highway 20 from Beeksma Drive to Swantown Street. Of those, two of the accidents were disabling, 13 were non-disabling and 65 were recorded as possible injuries.

According to the DOT, “reportable accidents” are those that involve a death, injury or property damage in excess of $700.

A disabling injury is “any injury which prevents the injured person from walking, driving, or continuing normal activities at the time of the collision,” according to the DOT. A non-disabling injury is any injury that’s not fatal or disabling — such as broken fingers or abrasions. A possible injury is “any injury reported to the officer or claimed by the individual such as momentary unconsciousness, claim of injuries not evident, limping, complaint of pain, nausea, hysteria, etc.,” the DOT reported.

The city estimates the cost of a Beeksma-to-Swantown construction project, with more lanes and roundabouts, at about $13 million.

Just south of that part of the highway, crews are currently working on an $8.3 million safety project to widen lanes, add turn lanes, level hills, straighten curves, realign sections of the road, and add lighting and bus lanes on the section of road from Swantown to Sidney Street.

The three-mile segment is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous parts of the highway on the island. A total of 164 accidents were reported in the five-year period. Those accidents caused three deaths, six disabling injuries, 21 non-disabling injuries and 49 possible injuries.

Although the work is technically called the Sidney Street to Scenic Heights project, the statistics don’t include the accidents from Swantown to Scenic Heights. The only work being done in that section is some drainage work near Scenic Heights — not any safety improvements.

Crews recently completed final touches on a $9.4 million safety project north of town on the highway from Cornet Bay Road to Troxell. The safety project along the one-mile section included widened lanes and shoulders, the leveling of a hill and intersection improvements to increase sight distance, and new turn lanes.

In the five-year period, 101 accidents were reported in the section, including six disabling accidents, 15 non-disabling and 23 possible injuries.

Last November, the DOT completed a $5.7-million safety project on a mile-and-a-half piece of the highway from Monkey Hill to Troxell Road. The work included improving the Monkey Hill intersection, adding a right turn lane from southbound Monkey Hill Road, widening the traffic lanes and shoulders, improving the Northgate Way intersection, and realigning the highway to improve sight lines for drivers.

From 2001 to 2006, 116 accidents were reported, including four with disabling injuries, 17 with non-disabling injuries and 23 with possible injuries.

The roadwork virtually eliminated the number of high-speed, rear-end accidents that used to occur at the Northgate Way intersection, Chesson said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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