Change afoot at ferry terminal

Workers are preparing for the bike improvements at the Bainbridge ferry terminal. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Workers are preparing for the bike improvements at the Bainbridge ferry terminal.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

As an evening ferry unloads on Bainbridge, a frenzy familiar to commuters begins on the stretch of State Route 305 between the terminal and Winslow Way.

Cyclists stampede off the ferry’s car deck and pedal madly up the hill to the stop light as a wave of motorcycles bear down from behind. As cars unload, foot passengers are already trickling across the four lanes of traffic on the crosswalk at Harborview Drive, making a shortcut along the waterfront to downtown parking.

Despite the melee of vehicles and pedestrians, Bainbridge Deputy Police Chief Mark Duncan could not recall any collisions at the Harborview intersection. But commuters and neighboring residents say it’s only a matter of time.

“I’ve never heard of anyone getting hit,” said Kathy Dunn, a resident of the nearby Harbourview Condominiums. “Just a lot of close calls.”

On Monday, ground was broken on what the Washington State Department of Transportation believes will serve as a partial solution for both the pedestrian and bicycle congestion.

Crews began clearing the shoulder of the highway to make way for an eight-foot-wide bike lane that will begin at the base of the ferry loading area, skirt the southernmost toll booth and run up the highway as far as Harborview Drive. The new lane will allow riders to reach the waterfront trail and downtown from the ferry without mingling in traffic.

A traffic light is also being added to the intersection at Harborview Drive to make pedestrian crossings safer, while giving motorists a protected turn from Harborview Drive and the garage across the way.

WSDOT plans to have construction completed by early May for a cost of $466,000.

Puget Sound Energy is also making changes along the route. Last December, PSE installed three new power poles on the west side of SR-305, and the company will be removing the old poles that are planted in the middle of the sidewalk.

The goal of the projects is to alleviate long-standing frustrations with the ferry corridor, voiced by commuters and residents for over a decade.

Cyclists have been vocal in their need for a separation from traffic. Bicycles, which can number more than 100 on summer runs, are first to unload from the ferry’s car deck, but are swiftly overtaken by motorcycles. Riders who need to merge left onto Winslow Way find themselves squeezed onto the highway’s yellow centerline.

“If you’re a really good cyclist you can stay within that six inches, but some riders veer into the oncoming lane,” said Dana Berg of Squeaky Wheels, an island cycling advocacy group. “It’s really dangerous but they have nowhere else to go.”

Residents of Harbourview Condominiums, an expansive complex at the base of Harborview Drive, have also been anxious for a traffic solution. For drivers, trying to make a turn onto the highway when a ferry is offloading means navigating several lanes full of cars and transit buses while keeping a sharp eye out for pedestrians cross the road and cyclists streaking down the hill.

“In the winter mornings, when it’s dark and wet, it can be a little scary to make a left turn there, especially if the right lane is full,” Dunn said. “You kind of have to creep out into traffic.”

Many seniors live in the condominiums and for them, walking through the bustling intersection can be treacherous Dunn said.

“Many of our residents are retirees and they may not be as quick on their feet as they used to be,” she said.

These concerns and others fed into a series of conversations with the city and Washington State Ferries. With WSF’s plans for a comprehensive renovation of the Bainbridge terminal pushed farther into the future, a scaled down interim option was a popular choice, Public Works Director Randy Witt said.

“This short-term solution got a lot of traction. People felt this could help solve a lot of problems for a modest amount of money,” Witt said.

The project could make the ferries more efficient as well, WSF spokesperson Susan Huether-Harris said. The new traffic light will be synchronized with the light on Winslow Way, so ideally traffic will flow smoothly on greens. Pedestrians will have a push-button operated signal at the Harborview intersection and will have to wait for the light to cross. Huether-Harris said that even though cars will have to stop at the new light for groups of walkers, it may still be faster than easing through walkers on the uncontrolled crosswalk as they do now.

“People walk out of (the terminal) and cross the street and they are oblivious to traffic,” Huether-Harris said. “It puts pedestrians at risk and it slows the ferry unloading.”

Berg said she she was pleased that WSDOT was beginning to address the troubled stretch of highway, and giving cyclists more options for unloading safely. But she said many close calls could be avoided if speed was better controlled.

“It’s just such a huge mix of cars, trucks, bikes and walkers, that to slow things down would be a great thing,” she said.

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