In our opinion: Contrasting road projects shows city’s priorities are askew

A tale of two road projects illustrates how things are amiss in Oak Harbor when it comes to spending priorities.

Construction is still a couple of years away for an important road safety and improvement project in a low-income area of the city. Plans to rebuild Northeast Seventh Avenue have been on the books for well over a decade.

The city actually had grant funding to rebuild the road in 2011, but the project was cut because city leaders felt they couldn’t afford matching funds due to unexpected costs associated with inadvertently digging up Native American remains on Pioneer Way. It turned out the city didn’t do the necessary archaeological and communication work ahead of time. A busy neighborhood suffered the consequences.

Work is still badly needed on the section of Seventh Avenue, which lacks sidewalks, lighting and bike lanes. In warm months, it’s not uncommon to see parents pushing strollers and kids riding Big Wheels on the gravely shoulder of the road, which links highway commercial areas and high-density housing.

In contrast, it looks like city officials will move forward with building a $700,000 access road off Fakkema Road just to serve the new U-Haul business being built. Developers are normally required to pay for any infrastructure improvements, but the city is picking up the tab for the giant national corporation in this case.

The short road is needed because access isn’t allowed to the property from Highway 20 due to safety concerns. Because of this complication, city officials have long been worried that the high-visibility property wouldn’t develop. Originally, the idea was to pay for the work with a Rural Counties Economic Development Fund grant, but Island County commissioners refused to hand over the cash since the project would benefit so few.

During a council meeting, the interim city attorney warned against pulling the plug on the road project because U-Haul expected the road to be built for them and “they could very likely file a lawsuit against the city.”

It’s funny. Nobody worried about people living in trailers and apartments suing the city when the Northeast Seventh Avenue project was cancelled.

A common complaint about city leaders in recent years is that they are beholden to developers. Mayor Bob Severns even cited his concern about the influence of developers on city politics as his reason for endorsing candidates in the last election.

Yet now it’s Severns’ administration that has been encouraging council members to gift U-Haul with the road.

The council hasn’t made any final decisions about actually building the access road, though a couple of members said they would like to see the company fund some portion of the cost — the estimate has inflated from $450,000 to $700,000 in a short time span.

Better yet, the council could simply accelerate the Seventh Avenue project and delay U-Haul’s access project.