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Council shifts traffic focus north

Oak Harbor City Council has decided to spend money fixing safety problems on the north end instead of congestion on the south end of the city.

A $100,000 grant earmarked for widening Highway 20 in the area near Albertsons grocery store in Oak Harbor will be shifted to fund a signal light at the northern edge of town.

Steve Powers, Oak Harbor Development Services director, asked the City Council Tuesday night to amend the six-year Transportation Improvement Program to allow the city to shift the Regional Transportation Planning Organization grant. Instead of using the $100,000 grant to help the state pay for an indefinite highway widening project, Powers said the grant will help the state pay for a signal light at Highway 20 and 16th Avenue next year.

Council members unanimously agreed (Councilman Eric Gerber was absent), though a couple of councilmen initially expressed hesitation about the idea. Councilmen Bob Morrison and Paul Brewer both emphasized the importance of widening the highway in the small but congested strip of the highway to the south.

Morrison said the estimated $400,000 price tag for a traffic signal seems out of line, though it was unclear where he got the cost figure. He added that fixing the stretch of highway in front of Wal-Mart is a higher priority for him.

“The number of accidents we have at Wal-Mart and Albertsons,” he said, “really upsets me more that the (number of) accidents up by Cemetery Road.”

Brewer said the city needs to do more to pressure the state to widen the highway, including doing a new traffic study in the area. He suggested sending a letter to state officials. “The squeaky wheel gets the money,” he said.

According to Powers, the state is solely responsible for Highway 20, even within the city limits. The city won’t take over responsibility until it comes within three years of reaching a population of 22,500. Right now the city hovers around 20,000 residents.

The city, therefore, isn’t required to contribute money to Highway 20 projects. Powers said the city has applied for and received grants for highway projects in order to encourage the state to do construction. He said the state is more likely to do a project if the city helps fund it.

Yet Powers said the state is also encouraging local governments such as Oak Harbor to use grant money in a timely fashion, or risk losing it. The city currently has the $100,000 Regional Transportation Planing Organization grant, a $156,000 Transportation Improvement Board grant and $47,000 in an escrow account, all for highway widening in the Beeksma to Erie Street area. The project, Powers said, is estimated to cost $650,000.

The state has no definite plans for widening the highway, though an official wrote a letter last year stating that the Department of Transportation is “committed to pursuing funding for the construction phase as we start to build our ‘05-’07 capital improvement program.”

Powers said the letter is a very good sign, but it still leaves the city’s grants sitting unused for an unknown amount of time.

On the other hand, the state is scheduled to construct a signal light at Highway 20 and NE 16th Avenue in the next year or so. The state is planning a “safety improvement project,” the so-called Frostad project, on the highway from NE Narrows Avenue to Dugualla Bay in 2004, Powers said. The work includes safety improvements at the intersection of Highway 20 and NE Regatta Drive.

Powers said it’s a perfect time for the city to partner with the state and put in a traffic light at NE 16th Avenue, where there are both “level of service” and safety concerns. City staff, he said, feel that the traffic light is a higher priority than highway widening.

According to Powers, the state has offered to design and construct the signal as part of the Frostad project if the city contributes up to $252,000. In addition to the $100,000 grant that was shifted, the city recently received another $152,000 Regional Transportation Planning Organization specifically for the signal light.

In other words, no money will come out of the city’s general fund for construction of the signal light.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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