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Bridge goes nowhere

"Traffic congestion on the main highway linking North Whidbey to the mainland is going to get worse over the next few years. That's a given. But this week, a spokesperson from the Department of Transportation said a new bridge or new ferry service from the north end will not and cannot solve the problem - at least not now.Department of Transportation Planning Manager Jerry Schutz said three new bridge concepts and one new ferry proposal all failed to pass a recent technical feasibility study authorized by the department. Those options were 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 and Coupeville to North Stanwood.Schutz cited potential environmental damage, endangered salmon, threats to archeological sites, earthquake faults, federal regulation, public opinion and high cost as reasons for the technical committee's decision. He presented the findings during two public meetings Tuesday and Wednesday and will report the same to local transportation policy boards soon. Those boards will ultimately make the final decision about rejecting or going ahead with any of the plans. The technical committee's verdict will likely be cheered by many islanders who overwhelmingly denounced the idea of a new bridge in a Transportation Department-sponsored survey last year. Residents said a new bridge would just bring more traffic to the island and would jeopardize the island's rural character.On the other hand, the lack of any good alternative to the already-burdened Deception Pass Bridge could cause traffic nightmares in the future.Schutz said none of the four options would justify spending $5 million to $10 million on a full Environmental Impact Study - the next step in the process.The three bridge options would have had to cross large stretches of eelgrass beds which are protected by federal law. Eelgrass lines most of the mainland coast across from North Whidbey and is habitat for herring, a major food source for endangered salmon.There is no known way to replace eelgrass, Schutz said, explaining why patches of eelgrass in the bridge's path couldn't be relocated or replanted after construction.The bridge plans also crossed known archeological sites, in one case more than 40, which would have required a mountain of studies, research and paperwork even before knowing whether construction was possible.The car ferry option was blown out of the water mainly because of cost and efficiency. Transportation officials couldn't guarantee that a north-end ferry could get cars to the mainland any faster than driving around. The ferry fare per passenger would likely be high to pay for the cost of construction and operation. As a result, technical committee members determined that drivers would likely chose to risk the traffic and drive around rather than take the boat.A ferry route also faced problems on the Stanwood side, where mud flats and shallow water would have required construction of a vehicle causeway more than a mile long out into the sound.Robert Josephson, a planning manager for the Department of Transportation's Northwest Region, said the passage of Initiative 695 in November was not a factor in the technical committee's decision. The initiative reduced car licence fees to $30 but cut $1.1 billion in statewide tax revenue over the next two years - much of it going to transportation projects.Though I-695 didn't affect the study, it could have affected the rest of the project, Josephson said. If the committee had found a good option, the department would then have had to ask the Legislature for the $5 million to $10 million for the Environmental Impact Statement and then about $150 million to $200 million for construction. Based on current public opinion and the lack of support for a new bridge by local Representatives and Senators, Josephson doubted that the legislators would have freed up the funds.In addition to the three bridge and one ferry proposal the department also briefly studied the option of widening the current Deception Pass Bridge and building a tunnel under the Sound. Schutz said bridge-widening concept was eliminated because of federal restrictions on construction within parks. The tunnel idea was dismissed after it was determined that it would have to cross three earthquake faults. Schutz said the study will likely be revisited several times as time goes by and traffic problems increase. He said that if the problem gets bad enough, the Legislature might give it a higher priority. Science may find ways to work around environmental problems and salmon could recover sufficiently to be taken off the endangered list.At the same time, however, Schutz said that environmental problems could get worse and regulation more stringent. More species could be classified as endangered and dollars could become harder to come by.Things will change, he said. "

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