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Times change with traffic flow

Islanders have strong opinions about traffic flow, but those opinions are subject to change.

Two years ago, a then-proposed roundabout at Madison Avenue and High School Road was almost universally reviled. But this week, when a sampling of islanders were asked how they would prefer to handle congestion at intersections, roundabouts beat stoplights by a margin of 19-1.

Opinions may be shifting in other areas as well. When the comprehensive plan was being drafted, islanders were steadfastly opposed to widening Highway 305, but the small sampling of opinion gathered this week shows a dead-even split.

“In the past, there was strong opposition, but now there’s good support for at least doing something, and that’s a little bit of a surprise,” said Public Works Director Randy Witt.

And on another matter that has generated controversy, connecting Ericksen Avenue through to Hildebrand Lane was favored by a 2-1 margin.

The occasion was a city-sponsored workshop on transportation issues and options facing the city for the next 20 years. Some 50 islanders showed up at Bainbridge High School Wednesday night to see the city’s presentation, talk with consultants and fill out a questionnaire.

The workshop was the opening event in a multi-month effort to revise the transportation element of the comprehensive plan. Before any final decisions are made, the proposals will go first to the Planning Commission, then to the Bainbridge Island City Council.

Most of the talk involved the highway, which the city’s consultants, JDL, project will become so congested in the near future that drivers not only won’t be able to move along it, they won’t be able to get across it either.

While everyone agreed that something had to be done to ease congestion, there was a strong division on whether widening the highway to four lanes would do that.

“We need to reduce the congestion,” said those respondents who advocated a wider road. But those opposed said a wider highway would only invite more traffic. “If you build it, they will come,” said more than one questionnaire response.

Those opposed to highway widening focused on ways to reduce ferry-related traffic.

“I wouldn’t like to see the highway widened,” said Doug Rauh.

“I haven’t seen a solution yet, but you need to work with the ferry system,” he said, referring to the possible high-speed passenger boats running from Kingston to downtown Seattle.

But Bob Gedney said the ferry system may have plans that would hurt, not help, the island traffic picture.

“I think that within ten years there will be a new generation of fast auto ferries that will make the run from Bainbridge to Seattle in 10-12 minutes,” Gedney said. “That will change everything, creating a constant flow of traffic onto the highway and creating even worse problems.”

Bob Fortner advocated ferry service to other points, including Suquamish, but also said islanders need to make less use of the highway for intra-island trips.

“We need to limit places you can get on the highway, then use overpasses or underpasses so you can get across,” he said.

Despite JDL’s findings that only a quarter to a third of traffic on the highway at rush hour comes from the ferry, respondents uniformly favored more park and ride lots and more support for mass transit to reduce the number of vehicles making ferry-related trips.

There was even substantial support for more ferry-terminal parking linked to car pools and mass transit.

Bridge-building

An altogether different approach came from Ralls Clotfelter of Poulsbo, who showed up to push his plan for a new ferry terminal in Blakely Harbor, a limited-access covered highway to Point White, and a bridge from Point White to Illahee.

“Traffic is worse than ever and the highway is no bigger,” he said. “I’ve sat in the car for up to five hours trying to get home. We need an alternate route.”

Clotfelter said he had no estimate of how much his proposal would cost.

Because the highway belongs to the state, any improvements would have to be instigated and, at least for the most part, financed by the state.

And while there was some support for highway improvements, there was little interest in paying for them locally. Respondents overwhelmingly favored 100 percent state funding for the improvements, and rejected tolls by more than a 2-1 margin.

Other than the highway, the island’s traffic troubles are concentrated in downtown Winslow. And the Winslow slow spots, most of which will not become critical for at least six years, can be fixed by improving the intersections.

By a 17-5 margin, attendees favored more road connections across the island to improve traffic flow. But that was a somewhat abstract blessing – the only two attendees whose own streets were involved opposed those specific connections.

Omitted from the list of possible connections was the proposal to extend Wyatt Way across the ravine to the highway, giving south-end residents a way to get to the ferry terminal without going through downtown Winslow. The idea was dropped because studies called into question the supposed benefit, city engineer Jeff Jensen said.

“The consultants found only minor reductions in the traffic on Winslow Way – something like 50 to 100 trips a day,” he said. “With the high costs and low benefits, we dropped the idea.”

In answer to a specific question, respondents favored linking Ericksen to Hildebrand, ending the situation where hundreds of cars per day cut through the Frontier Bank parking lot to make the link.

“It’s already used as a connection. Let’s formalize it and make it safer,” wrote one central-island woman.

Those on the other side cited the snarl at High School Road and the highway, which Hildebrand traffic could aggravate, and the detriment to the quiet ambience of Ericksen.

“This is the one downtown street that is pedestrian friendly. Let’s keep it that way,” one respondent wrote.

Fortner said he liked the idea of connections, including Ericksen and Hildebrand, but worried that it might be unfair to deprive current residents of the ambience that attracted them to the neighborhood.

“When all those people living there die, that might be the time to do it,” he said.

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