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City dodges highway maintenance

State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen sponsored a bill, which became a law last week, that will save the city of Oak Harbor a whole lot of money.

The bill adjusts the population threshold at which cities and towns take responsibility for state highways that run through them. The law, signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire last Wednesday, changes the population threshold from 22,500 to 25,000.

That’s great news for Oak Harbor. The city’s population estimate, as of April 2006, was 22,290, according to Development Services Director Steve Powers.

Haugen, D-Camano Island, sponsored the bill in response to pleas from Oak Harbor leaders.

“We’re thrilled and so appreciative,” Councilwoman Sue Karahalios said. “With the city’s fiscal problems, it really relieves us of some worries.”

Karahalios said the change in threshold will likely put off the day when Oak Harbor takes over maintenance of the highway by three or four years. She said she’s not sure exactly how much the maintenance will cost, but it’s doubtlessly a great expense for a small city like Oak Harbor.

Powers said such maintenance covers more than just the surfacing of the streets, but everything from de-icing and snowplowing to maintaining signals, signs, sidewalks, striping and on and on.

In a press release, Haugen pointed out that the highway serves more than just the local community.

“They accommodate everyone who needs to travel or move goods across the state,” Haugen said. “The level of traffic on these roads is too great for small cities and towns to be expected to maintain.”

In Oak Harbor, the state highway also carries traffic in and out of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

“We have such an important base, we have so much important work, and transportation is a key for people being able to get in and out to work here,” Karahalios said. “Highway 20 is important for transporting goods, services and people, and for military readiness and protection locally and statewide. It’s truly critical.”

The last time the Legislature raised the population threshold was in 1991, when it was increased from 15,000 to 22,500.

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