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Highway job starts with history at San de Fuca

In many parts of the state, realigning a roadway to eliminate dangerous areas would be a routine matter.

But on Whidbey Island, where Highway 20 cuts through at least as much history as it does scenery, any potential changes require planning, studies and assessments.

And in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, which begins in the San de Fuca area – smack in the middle of the study area – preserving every particle of history is paramount.

This week, early stages of proposed changes to Highway 20 from Sydney Street south of Oak Harbor to Libbey Road began. But residents shouldn’t expect detours around asphalt work anytime soon.

Instead of hard-hatted roadworkers, a team of Washington State Department of Transportation archeologists, environmental and cultural resource specialists and consultants wandered Highway 20 with project and design engineers Wednesday.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Dawn Yankauskas, DOT project engineer, said from the San de Fuca pier.

The project’s entire team spent the day getting acquainted with the Libbey-to-Sydney stretch of highway by walking the route’s segments, viewing each area’s characteristics.

In San de Fuca, at Yankauskas’ back, shorebirds teetered along the beach of Penn Cove. The engineer ignored the long-legged waders, the pier’s weathered planks and Penn Cove’s tessellated waves. Instead, Highway 20’s ripping traffic and rippling roadway captured her attention.

Any improvements to this section of Highway 20 would involve a $6.9 million safety project, Yankauskas said.

“We’ve been designing for a year,” she said.

The next phase will be permitting, once team members know practically every inch of the stretch. That phase won’t start before late 2006. Actual construction wouldn’t begin until 2009, maybe not 2010.

And any changes will require planning, meetings and discussions.

“We have a lot of processes to work through,” Yankauskas said. “We have no alternate alignments in mind, but we’re looking at improving sight distances at intersections.” She said such improvements could involve horizontal as well as vertical changes to the road.

The team was looking at exactly what improvements could be made. In San de Fuca, homes and buildings, both historic and contemporary, were noted as was the proximity of water and bluffs dropping to the beach.

An historic home sits south and west of Penn Cove Pottery, a contemporary business which fills a former general store. These monuments leave little room for highway flex. Every potential shift of the road must be vetted with every team member.

And that work began before the group of engineers, analysis’s and consultants tromped San de Fuca.

Project work began last year when students from Eastern Washington University sank trenches at sites along Penn Cove. The teams were looking at previously located shell middens, trash heaps left by Native American tribes who lived on Whidbey and harvested shellfish, berries and other local crops.

Shell middens provide critical information on native groups. DOT archeologist Trent DeBoer said.

Calcium in shells preserve all manner of artifacts from dissolving due to acids in the soil, DeBoer explained.

Prehistory of Penn Cove isn’t well documented, DeBoer said. Every fragment found in the San de Fuca area adds to information on the area.

The 2003 work used sensitive methods of analysis. DeBoer said radio carbon dating placed sections of the shell middens at 1,000 years old.

Several area residents claim archeologists last summer found bones, which would collapse any possible modifications to Highway 20.

DOT team members said no bones were found. However the radio carbon date of the shell middens makes these trash heaps significant. Any highway shifts would require another layer of discussions with local tribes as well as with state and national parks staff.

Wednesday, Yankauskas and the project team weren’t focusing on meetings and paperwork to come. They developed a feel for the stretch of highway by watching traffic, kicking dirt and taking photos.

“Let’s move on,” Yankauskas said after the group had spent almost half an hour along San de Fuca roadsides.

The group needed to stand along more road and study another section of the proposed Sydney to Libbey project.

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