Highway project costs city

Washington State Department of Transportation’s plans to rebuild a stretch of Highway 20 near Deception Pass may end up costing the city of Oak Harbor more than $1.5 million.

Eric Johnston, a city engineer, told the City Council Tuesday night that the city will have to relocate the 24-inch and 10-inch water lines that run underground along Highway 20. The state’s highway project, he explained, will significantly drop the grade of the highway in order to improve sight distance and make the road safer.

“Basically what they are doing is lowering the highway by about 10 feet,” he said, “which means our water lines will be about eight feet in the air, so they need to be moved.”

Johnston added that staff recommends that the cash-strapped city apply for a low-interest loan through the Washington Public Works Trust Fund to fund the project. The loan can be paid back over a 20-year period with an interest rate that could be as low as one-half to 3 percent. In fact, he said municipalities often make money from a trust fund loan because the money may sit awhile in the cities’ bank accounts, earning higher interest than the pay-back rate.

Also, the city may be able to get the Navy to pay a portion of the cost since the city has a contract to supply water to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Yet a couple of the council members — Danny Paggao and Paul Brewer — questioned why the Department of Transportation doesn’t help pay for the waterline relocation. “It doesn’t seem equitable for the city to shoulder all the costs,” Paggao said.

Brewer said city officials should send a letter to the agency strongly protesting the road project and asking if there are alternatives. He said “unfunded mandates” from the state are “breaking the city.”

Johnston, however, explained that the city has a franchise agreement with the state to place the waterlines in the state-owned right-of-way. Under the agreement, the city is solely responsible for relocation of the utilities in the event that it is needed.

Yet Mayor Patty Cohen said, in the past, the city successfully fought a Department of Transportation proposal that would have cost the city about $1.2 million to move water lines. She said the state wanted to put in new sidewalks on the bridge, which is where the lines cross the water. She said city officials simply told the state that Oak Harbor couldn’t afford it and the proposal was “pulled.”

The Highway 20 project, however, is considered a safety-related project. According to the Department of Transportation, the section of the highway from Troxell to the bridge is designated as a “high accident corridor” because there are a high number of rear-end and intersection-related accidents. Also, the department claims the narrow shoulders and lanes create a high risk of running off the road.

The highway will be dropped about 10 feet in the area just south of Cornet Bay Road. The roadway will also be widened and turn lanes added at the intersection of Ducken and Deception Circle roads. Ducken Road will be realigned to form a four-way intersection with Deception Circle Road. A turn on the highway to Old Cornet Bay Road will be eliminated.

Also, the historic, Civilian Conservation Corps-built rock and log guardrails in the area will be replaced with a guardrail system that meets current standards.

The state has scheduled the project for over two seasons, starting in the spring of 2005 and ending in the fall of 2006.

Johnston said city staff has broken up the water line project into three phases. The first phase involves preliminary engineering; the second phase includes final design engineering; and the third phase is construction.

Tuesday, the council members unanimously agreed to direct staff to apply for the Public Works Trust Fund loan. They also approved a contract with an engineering firm, Barryman & Henigar, Inc., to complete the “phase one” preliminary engineering at a cost of $106,000. The firm, Johnston explained, was involved in the original design and construction of the 24-inch water lines.

After the preliminary work is done, Johnston said staff will return to council to approve funding for the next phase.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611.

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