$1 million won’t fix Highway 20 congestion

Oak Harbor has a $1 million grant to ease traffic congested on the busiest section of Highway 20, but it may not be able to spend the money anytime soon.

The problem is that it’s simply not enough cash to do any meaningful improvements on the highway from Beeksma Drive to Swantown Avenue. The state owns the highway and is responsible for improving it, but state legislators haven’t dedicated any funds to a widening project — even though the city has been asking for at least a decade.

Even a new plan to add an extra lane on a short stretch of the highway is too expensive because of the cost of moving six mobile homes.

City Engineer Eric Johnston briefed members of the City Council and Mayor Patty Cohen last week on the latest attempts to reduce gridlock in the busy section of the highway.

He said staff from the city and the Department of Transportation met last February. The goal, he said, was to see if some of the problems on the road could be solved with the $1 million grant the city won from the Island County Regional Transportation Planning Organization last year.

“The question was: What can we get in there without spending a lot of money?” he said.

The answer was: not much.

Johnston said the DOT came back with some ideas that would eliminate access to certain properties or roads from the highway, like preventing left turns to Scenic Heights Street. But city staff tossed out those ideas for several reasons, including concerns about emergency vehicle access.

One idea that both the city and DOT agreed upon was adding an extra, westbound “auxiliary lane” on the short section of the highway between Erie Street and Swantown Avenue. Johnston predicts that the extra lane would make a noticeable difference in traffic circulation since 60 percent of cars on the highway are headed that way. About 40 percent of the traffic turns on Swantown.

But in order to put in the extra lane, the state or city would have to purchase land on the north side of the highway where six manufactured homes currently sit. Johnston said that cost would make the project well over $1 million.

Mayor Cohen pointed out that the city has already agreed to do-away with a couple of other mobile home parks in recent years, cutting down on low-income housing.

She suggested that the city could pay to move the homes to the northeast side of the park, which would require a rezone. While the homes would lose water views, she said they would be in a much quieter location.

“This would really be a win-win for all bodies involved,” Cohen said.

Local developer Bill Massey owns the mobile home park, Cohen said.

The city and Department of Transportation completed a $30,000 corridor study of the highway two years ago, which called for extra lanes and roundabouts. The work on the highway from Swantown to Beeksma is estimated to cost $13 million.

But even with the completed study, lawmakers in Olympia haven’t funded the project. Johnston said the issue may be that safety-related projects are considered a higher priority, while the Oak Harbor project is mainly a capacity-related project.

Inquiries with the Department of Transportation and the office of state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano), the chair of the state transportation committee, went unanswered this week.

The Oak Harbor Police, however, consider areas on the highway near SE Erie Street and SW Barrington Drive to be “high collision locations.” Last year there were 11 accidents on the highway at SE Erie Street and 10 accidents at SW Barrington Drive.

City officials say it makes sense for the state to start investing in the section of the highway now or risk paying much, much more in the future.

Under a state law that only applied to Whidbey Island, the highway cannot drop below its adopted level of service or LOS, which is an engineer’s measure of the average delay on a road. The LOS are categorized as A to F, with A being no delay at all. The adopted LOS in that section of the highway is E, but Johnston said someday soon it may fall to an F.

Cohen said that the time is right for the state to be purchasing property along the highway for the planned roundabouts. Some of the property is up for sale right now. By waiting, the state risks that the land could be sold and developed, making the cost of purchasing the land skyrocket in the future.

But the overall solution to the growing traffic nightmare, Johnston said, is simple.

“At some point, the state Legislature needs to fund the project,” he said.

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