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A roundabout way to fix traffic

Traffic safety and congestion will be the topics of discussion Thursday at an open house the Washington Department of Transportation is sponsoring. And they’ll also be discussing the potential of up to six roundabouts along Highway 20.

The meeting, which takes place from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Oak Harbor Public Works building, 1400 N.E. 16th Ave., is the result of a study WSDOT conducted to determine ways to alleviate the growing concern of traffic and safety within city limits.

WSDOT Highway Planning Engineer Eric Shjarback said the study focused on intersections instead of the traditional fix of widening the road.

“We can’t build our way out of the problem,” said Todd Carlson, WSDOT planning and operations manager, “but we can figure our way out of it.”

Planning for the future is one of the driving factors behind the study, which Shjarback said will not immediately lead to construction. Currently, between 17,000 and 20,000 vehicles travel Highway 20 between Swantown and Cabot Avenue each day. WSDOT planners estimate that number will increase to at least 30,000 vehicles each day by the year 2030.

“It’s a fix for the next few years out – it gets us to 2030,” Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen said. “We know in the back of our minds that at some point in time we’re looking at a bypass.”

The city has previously considered an alternative to the main highway as a way to ease congestion. In the 1980s, city officials evaluated the feasibility of using Ault Field Road to connect with Heller Road.

“We’re going to have to revisit that,” Cohen said.

WSDOT engineers say that the current highway design will not support the volumes of travel expected in the area.

“Right now, it is bits and pieces,” Shjarback said. “But in 20 years, the whole corridor will fail.”

Among the proposed fixes are widening the highway from Swantown to Erie. This would alleviate a lot of accidents at the highway’s intersection at Erie, which occur when people try to merge.

Also included on the list of potential fixes are adding the opportunities for U-turns at the intersections, Shjarback said.

But tops on the list are the addition of roundabouts, or traffic circles. The looping traffic features do not interrupt travel like a stoplight. Instead, drivers drive around a circle before turning off to their destination.

“The problem is how do we maintain safe traffic flow to the area’s businesses,” Shjarback said. “It’s not the prettiest – seeing five lanes of pavement through town.”

Cohen said that most people react negatively to the concept of installing the roundabouts, but their positives outweigh their negatives.

“If we have to spend some time educating the public,” she said, “then I’ll do that.”

The installation of the roundabouts would be a drastic departure from Oak Harbor’s traditional methods of city planning, Cohen said.

“We have a tendency to do our planning in Oak Harbor by using traditional designs,” she said. “By using those traditional efforts, you end up looking like the place you just came from. You get a very homogenized look.”

The WSDOT has already built 67 of the traffic circles and has plans for 50 more in the next year.

Shjarback said WSDOT will address the road in a phased approach. No cost figures have been determined yet, but he said that it could cost as much as $10 million to improve the 1.23-mile stretch of highway.

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