Sound Off: Bumps in the road project

By Dave Chesson

We can certainly understand Mr. Pacher’s frustration (Sound Off, Oct. 20) with the long summer of construction on State Route 20 in south Oak Harbor. We too have been frustrated by the unforeseen challenges and bad weather that have delayed this project.

Our goal is to improve safety for drivers on SR 20 in south Oak Harbor — a critical route for drivers on Whidbey Island. In the five years leading up to construction, we saw 169 collisions along this stretch of roadway, including numerous injury collisions and three fatalities. This project is designed to reduce the risk of serious collisions.

We straightened two curves where we have seen the majority of run-off-the-road collisions. We also lowered the crest of two hills (one by six feet, the other by two-and-a-half feet) where we have seen the majority of rear-end collisions. Flattening the hills gives drivers a better view as they approach Swantown Road from the south, where traffic often backs up at the signal and catches drivers by surprise as they crest the hill.

Though these changes may seem minor, we have seen significant results from similar projects in other locations. For instance, last year we realigned a road and lowered a hill on SR 20 between Troxell and Cornet Bay roads. During the three years leading up to construction we saw an average of eight collisions resulting in seven injuries per year. In the first year after the hill was cut, we saw five collisions resulting in only two injuries.

As you might imagine, coordinating a project of this size on such a busy highway is a difficult task that requires a lot of planning and many adjustments along the way. As Mr. Pacher mentioned, we originally planned to fully close SR 20 and detour all traffic for two 58-hour periods. However, our contractor suggested a revised plan that would allow drivers to keep using the highway during construction, and allow crews to finish the majority of the work earlier in the summer.

We saw a lot of advantages to this plan. With both lanes open during the day and only one lane closed at night, local drivers and tourists would still be able to use the highway during the summer. Completing most of the work earlier in the summer also gave us a chance of completing the project in one season and gave us extra time in case we ran into challenges during construction. Under our original plan, the highway would have remained shut down beginning with the Monday morning commute if we ran into problems during the weekend closures.

On the down side, this revised plan left the road bumpy and dusty for two full weeks. We also were late opening lanes in the morning on several occasions, inconveniencing morning commuters. We ran into other surprises that added time. Crews got a late start on the project because they had to wait for the utility companies to move power poles along SR 20. Utility crews were pulled off the job several times to fix damage from last winter’s storms. During construction, we uncovered unexpected soil conditions that required us to revise some of our plans.

All these delays meant that we were unable to finish paving the road this summer. We ground the pavement edges in preparation for paving on Sept. 17. This left drivers with several bumps to negotiate daily. We needed eight warm and dry nights to finish paving. But the weather didn’t cooperate, and by Oct. 22, we had only three nights of the work completed. We can understand drivers’ frustration. We were frustrated too.

Despite the setbacks we experienced, we believe the contractor did everything in their power to complete this work this summer, ahead of the original schedule. Their revised plan allowed us to keep traffic moving during construction and gave us the time we needed to complete the majority of the work before we got rained out. Had we started later, and been confined to weekends, we might not have gotten the hill cutting completed at all. Unfortunately, the weather did not fully cooperate, and we must postpone paving until next spring. Leaving the job incomplete will cost the contractor money and time next spring when they have to return to complete the work. To make the road safe for winter driving, we have smoothed out the pavement edges and are in the process of painting lane striping.

We know that many daily commuters have been inconvenienced by this project and we thank them for their patience. We are confident that when the project is complete next spring, we will see fewer serious collisions along this busy stretch of SR 20. If you have questions or comments about this or any WSDOT project, I hope you will share them with us. I can be reached weekdays at 360-757-5970.

Dave Chesson, WSDOT

Communications, Burlington.

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