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State says it's a bridge too far

"There’s a stall on the bridge.The passage of Initiative 695 has temporarily stopped a study into a new bridge or ferry linking North Whidbey to the mainland. The Washington Department of Transportation announced this week that it’s pulling the plug on the study until it can take a look at how the $30 tab initiative will affect future highway funding.Department spokesperson Mark Sinden said the hold-up may be short-lived because the study is nearly complete and officials would like to wrap it up so that it can be ready for a series of public meetings scheduled for February.Initiative 695 was approved by voters in early November. It repeals all state motor vehicle excise taxes, the state travel trailer and camper excise tax and the state clean air excise tax. It replaces all that with a flat $30 license tab fee for most vehicles.The loss of the tax money is expected to reduce Department of Transportation revenue by about $1.2 billion this year and by about $7 billion over the next six years. That’s about one-third of projected revenues for the budget period.As a result, the department has decided to re-prioritize its project list and possibly wait to see whether state legislators will reallocate money from other programs into transportation.The department undertook the North Whidbey Island Access Feasibility Study more than a year ago after the Legislature approved $175,000 to look for alternative ways of moving an increasing number of people and cars to and from the island. State transportation planners say the State Highway 20 corridor and the narrow Deception Pass Bridge will reach regular gridlock within the next 10 years. During the summer months, they predict that gridlock is only five years away.Six alternatives — including widening the existing bridge, building new bridges and adding ferry runs — were run past residents and planners last year. The idea of another bridge proved to be unpopular with local residents. Only 27 percent of respondents to a department survey said they’d like to see a new bridge on North Whidbey and few agreed on just where such a bridge should be located.In the spring, a regional transportation board narrowed the study to four possibilities: a new bridge from North Whidbey to the mainland near LaConner, a new bridge from Whidbey’s Strawberry Point to the Fir Island/Conway area, a new bridge from Strawberry Point to an area north of Stanwood and a vehicle ferry from North Whidbey to North Stanwood.Since then, a technical committee has been reviewing the four alternatives and recently agreed that none of the four were feasible, primarily for environmental reasons. The committee’s report was scheduled to go out to public meetings in mid February and then on to a sub-regional transportation board for final debate.But that was before I-695.“I’m not sure what will happen now,” said Sinden. “We’re so far into it that inside staff may be able to complete it. But we could theoretically cancel the rest of the project.”Access to and from Whidbey could also be affected by another study the department has put on hold. That study was looking at ways to improve traffic flow and safety on a seven-mile stretch of SR 20 from Sharpes Corner on Fidalgo Island to its intersection with State Route 536 outside Mount Vernon. The section of road has been labeled a high-accident corridor because of more than 300 accidents during the last decade.For more information see the Department of Transportation Web site at www.wsdot.wa.gov/regions/northwest/planning/planning.htm."

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