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"New bridge out, so now what?"

"Transportation officials say highway traffic on North Whidbey will probably reach gridlock conditions in the next five to 10 years. Instead of a new bridge and a bigger highway, though, state transportation officials say islanders may have to depend on buses, staggered work hours or telecommuting to help break the jam in the future.The lack of any alternate access to the island leaves it in a tough spot. On one hand, the county is trying to attract new business and tourism. But if the state roads and ferries become too clogged, state law could force the county to stop issuing building permits in order to slow growth. At certain times already, State Route 20 from Oak Harbor to the Deception Pass Bridge nearly fails state level-of-service standards. Even though the Department of Transportation is looking into revising the standards, the simple truth is that the narrow two-lane highway can handle only so many vehicles.Since bigger, wider roads and ferries don't seem to be the answer, transportation officials are now looking at other ways to reduce the the number of vehicles on the existing roads and the likelihood of future gridlock. In a study expected to be completed in June, alternatives to construction are being tossed around.We have to stop taking thousands of pounds of metal around with us everywhere we go, said Island County transportation planner Mike Morton.That means looking at things like passenger-only ferries or free passage for walk-ons and bikes boarding existing car ferries, Morton said. But he added that such ideas would only work if good public transportation systems existed at both ends so that cars became unnecessary.Bus service and vanpools are getting strong consideration, but the recent passage of Initiative 695 reduced public transportation funding and has already led to cuts in Island Transit service on the weekends and between Whidbey and the mainland.Morton said Whidbey is not alone when it comes to transportation problems.As population grows, the congestion keeps moving, he said, noting that Interstate 5 tie-ups, which used to be confined to the Seattle metropolitan area, now stretch as far north as Marysville.The environmental, financial, social and technical problems that plagued the North Whidbey alternate bridge and ferry study are at work on the mainland as well. Morton pointed to the listing of salmon as endangered species, the high cost of construction and the difficulty of obtaining more right-of-way as literal roadblocks faced by transportation planners across the state.I don't think you're going to see a lot of new highway construction, he said."

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