A proposal to build a crosswalk has turned into an unlikely controversy in a city filled with unlikely controversies.
Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley claims that a couple of councilmen are obstructing his attempts to build a pedestrian crossing on Whidbey Avenue for political reasons. He and the majority of council members have been at odds over a diversity of issues since he came into office, most recently over the management of a marathon and quorum at a cocktail party.
“I think the City Council needs to get past the politics,” he said. “You would think they would say we should do everything we can to improve safety in the community.”
The council members, however, said they also had safety in mind when they questioned a proposal to build a somewhat unusual mid-block crosswalk on East Whidbey Avenue between State Highway 20 and Oak Harbor Street.
Almberg, a retired construction manager, made a motion at the last council meeting requiring the city to get an opinion letter from an engineer about the feasibility of the project before moving forward with it.
“In my experience in … traffic improvements, some of them including state highways, this particular scenario would raise red flags with the traffic engineers I have worked with,” he said at the meeting.
Almberg’s motion passed unanimously.
Yet Dudley claims Almberg and the others are “being difficult” just because he spearheaded the project. He said he brought the proposal to the Skagit-Island Regional Transportation Planning Organization and the group ranked it as the No. 1 project for funding.
As a result, the city received a $224,500 grant from the Transportation Alternative Program to build the crossing. The grant requires no local matching funds.
Dudley said some council members — he called out Almberg and Bob Severns — want to block the project because they think he made a promise to a local citizen to get it done.
He said he did promise to make every effort to build it.
In an interview this week, Councilman Severns denied that he was motivated by politics.
Severns said he trusts Almberg’s expertise and that he has his own concerns about a mid-block crossing. He said he remembers when a local woman was seriously injured in such a crosswalk on Pioneer Way years ago.
“If we can’t find an engineer to write a letter, it might be an early indication that something isn’t right,” he said.
Dudley said that the city won’t be able to find a reputable engineer who would be willing to sign off on the pedestrian safety project without doing a full-scale study.
“I don’t think it makes sense to ask an engineer for a blessing on a project they know nothing about,” he said.
The proposal for a pedestrian crossing in the area originated from a local man, whose mother lived in Harbor Tower Villages, an assisted living facility adjacent to the area where the crossing would go.
As City Engineer Joe Stowell pointed out, pedestrians from Harbor Towers, an apartment complex, and the Rollerbarn on the north side of the road often don’t use the crosswalks but cross mid-block to get over the Saars Market and the other businesses in the complex that includes the former Kmart.
Stowell said he couldn’t find any reports on pedestrian accidents in the area, but that a city planner had witnessed one that apparently wasn’t reported to police.
The issue is on the agenda for the council’s workshop on Wednesday.