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City gambles on highway study

It’s a $107,000 gamble.

But Oak Harbor city officials say pulling money from the city’s traffic-impact fund to pay for engineering and design studies of the city’s most congested stretch of Highway 20 is worth the financial risk.

The study, which will focus on the section of highway that runs from Beeksma Drive to Swantown Road, is the first step in persuading the state to pay to fix the road.

The estimated price tag for constructing an additional lane both north and south, purchasing right-of-ways and making other improvements could run at least $4 million, according to city officials.

Still, there’s no guarantee that after the city pays for its portion of the study, the highway will be improved any time soon -— if at all.

Right now, the project isn’t on the state Department of Transportation’s priority list. But city officials and those involved with transportation issues say it’s a good idea to do the design studies now as a way to entice state officials to complete the job later.

“Generally, it’s a chicken-and-egg game,” said Todd Carlson, planning and operations manager with the state’s Department of Transportation office in Burlington. “If you don’t know what you need, how can you persuade the Legislature to pay for it?”

Or as Steve Powers, Oak Harbor development services director, put it at a recent City Council meeting: “This plan will help us get their attention on this project.”

All together, the design

study is expected to cost about $150,000.

The city’s money comes from traffic impact fees. Those fees are paid to the city by businesses to compensate for increased traffic flow. For instance, Whidbey Island Bank’s new headquarters, at the corner of Erie Drive and Highway 20, netted the city $47,000.

A state Transportation Improvement Board (TIB) grant of close to $45,000 also will pay for the engineering study.

Indeed, officials from the city engineering and planning departments warned City Council members that the transportation improvement board grant was in danger of being yanked if the city did not begin spending the money awarded several years ago.

Originally, city officials were focused on a far smaller section of Highway 20. They wanted to add another traffic lane to the northbound section of the road, between Erie and Beeksma Drive.

The area is considered a choke point as traffic makes a sharp turn south toward Coupeville, and north through the heart of Oak Harbor’s commercial corridor. The traffic light near Schuck’s Auto Supply affords several options, including turning left and continuing up the highway, heading straight to Oak Harbor’s downtown along Pioneer Way, or turning right on Beeksma, toward the southern entrance of Oak Harbor’s City Beach park.

But to arrive at that light, motorists are limited to one northbound lane, with several left-hand turn refuges to get to other businesses.

Widening this section of road would have allowed for an easier traffic flow, but it would have done nothing to help motorists moving up the hill past Albertson’s, where the highway suddenly constricts from two lanes to one.

Ultimately, city officials said both segments of the highway need to be fixed for traffic to move smoothly.

As it stands, an average 19,000 motorists pass north and south along this stretch of Highway 20 each day.

State transportation officials agree that this segment of Highway 20 is congested and troublesome.

But they also note that money for state highway projects is in short supply.

Some of that financial shortfall eased last fall when the Legislature passed a gas tax of a nickel per gallon. But that money was quickly absorbed by more pressing transportation projects approved by the Legislature, said the DOT’s Carlson.

One of those projects, which will widen the rest of Highway 20 to four lanes between Anacortes and Interstate 5, has been sitting on an engineer’s shelf for the better part of a decade, Carlson said.

“We’ve been chasing funding for 10 years,” he said of the $90-plus million project being funded by the nickel gas tax.

Motorists also pay another 23 cents per gallon of gas, as part of an ongoing gas tax. Half of that money goes to the state’s transportation department. The other half goes directly to cities and counties, as well as grant programs such as the Transportation Improvement Board, which focuses on urban areas such as Oak Harbor.

Transportation officials say despite gas-guzzling SUVs, overall, most cars are much more fuel efficient these days, meaning the state takes in far less in fuel taxes, even as more cars hit the highway.

Also, due to inflation, the buying power of that tax has dropped.

“Our revenue stream is so small,” Carlson said. “It’s getting less and less every year.”

That means road projects are addressed first for safety reasons, and second to shore up existing roadways that are crumbling or otherwise falling apart.

On Whidbey Island, the state is spending about $60 million to fix numerous unsafe intersections along more rural stretches of Highway 20 from Deception Pass to Sidney Road.

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