July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:06 PM
"With the potential for gridlocked highways in Island County's future, the Washington State Department of Transportation wants islanders to know that there is no gridlock of ideas.At two public open houses this week, department representatives answered questions and elaborated on six new proposals for dealing with the region's transportation needs during the next 20 years. Among the proposals are plans for more buses, a rail system, passenger ferries, free ferry fares for walk-ons, widening local highways to four lanes, new highway bypass roads and even a concept for doing nothing at all.The options along with a questionaire were mailed to all local residents more than a week ago and the department has already received hundreds of replies. A new wrinkle this week is that department officials have added possible costs to the proposals. Costs vary from as little as $35 million to more than $280 million. At this point, said Mark Sinden, a community planner with the department's Mt. Baker Region, cost isn't really a factor because there is currently no funding for any of the projects.It will have to come from the Legislature, he said.WSDOT Transportation Planning Manager Jerry Schutz said money will ultimately be a determining factor, however. Especially with continued population growth and higher demands on the state's transportation system. Schutz said that during the next 20 years the department is only slated to get half the money it has traditionally gotten over similar time periods.Once our projects are done we become a maintenance-only operation, he said.All the more reason for Island County to make plans early and get them submitted for budget approval. Sinden said the results of the local surveys and open houses will be tallied starting next week, with a final report expected in February.During this week's open houses, local citizens were still looking for answers to tough questions such as how to create an alternative to the Deception Pass Bridge; whether the highway can be widened through state park land; how to add more ferries to the Mukilteo-Clinton run; and how to make public transit more attractive to car drivers.Just because you put in these new innovations doesn't mean people will use them, said one participant as she looked over the proposal calling for a light-rail system.Many of the suggestions people had during the workshop were ideas the department has already considered, such as an Oak Harbor bypass, a ferry across Deception Pass and a two-slip Mukilteo ferry dock. Concepts for new bridges from North Whidbey to the mainland were all studied and rejected last year because of potential environmental damage, endangered salmon, threats to archeological sites, federal regulation, public opinion and high cost. A possible bridge from North Whidbey to Camano Island was also rejected for many of the same reasons, plus the fact that in studying the plan, a new earthquake fault was discovered near Strawberry Point. Interestingly, a mild earthquake occurred along the fault earlier this month.Department representatives also explained that in some cases transportation projects were handed a setback with the passage of Initiative 695 last year. Projects such as an expanded Mukilteo ferry terminal, Island Transit connecting service to other counties and the widening of State Route 20 toward Burlington and Mount Vernon in Skagit County were all stopped when I-695 drastically cut transportation revenue.These days, Island County will be up against some stiff competition for transportation funding, said Island County transportation planner Mike Morton. He said with all the critical transportation needs in the state, ideas such as a $300 million bridge just to serve Whidbey's 68,000 population will likely hit their own form of gridlock with lawmakers.---------------Solutions won't come cheapHere is a look at the proposed transportation options for Island County and their estimated cost.1. Bus/rapid transit route parallel or adjacent to the state highway, faster and more frequent bus service, and a passenger-only ferry: $205.4-$286.9 million.2. Aggressive expansion of transit service per Island Transit's 20-year growth plan, along with passenger-only ferry and enhancements to the highway system: $127.4 million.3. Fleet of passenger-only ferries in the style of the old Mosquito Fleet connecting Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Camano, Langley, Clinton, Mukilteo and Seattle: cost undermined.4. Transportation demand management. This option increases Park-N-Ride and Park-N-Pool lots, expands ride sharing programs, promotes alternative work schedules, provides fare-free ferry service for walk-ons and bikes, and investigates car sharing programs in an attempt to reduce the number of vehicles on Island County roads: $35 million.5. Highway improvements including widening Highway 525 and Highway 20 to four lanes and adding a county road link north of Greenbank: $66-$108.4 million, which amounts to $1.33-$2.18 million per mile.6. No new projects other than those already planned: Costs are included in regular budget. "