SR-305 light sequencing on Bainbridge faces 'distinct challenges'

Islanders have seen what happens when traffic lights aren’t working properly. 

Last month, drivers endured lengthy waits at the intersection of Winslow Way and SR-305, due to sequencing problems between the light there and the new signal down the hill on Olympic Drive. 

Additional evidence is logged in memories of power outages that extended traffic queues well beyond those experienced during peak commute times.

With an eye toward more expedient passage between here and Poulsbo, leaders from both cities are pushing for changes to traffic signals that they hope will ease drivers’ collective pain.

“I know it can be absolute hell getting on and off the island during rush hour,” said Poulsbo City Councilwoman Becky Erickson, who once lived – and still works – on Bainbridge Island.

Erickson recently introduced a new resolution asking the state Department of Transportation to study whether traffic lights can be better sequenced to improve traffic flows. The resolution was approved unanimously Monday by the Bainbridge City Council’s Public Works and Transportation Committee, and will soon go before the full council. It’s on a similar trajectory in Poulsbo, having cleared the committee level last week. Suquamish Tribal leaders also have been invited to the table, but haven’t yet formally responded, Erickson said.

Signal sequencing falls under the purview of WSDOT, though the agency works with cities and the tribe to address intersection concerns, said WSDOT Traffic Operations Engineer Steve Bennett.

Bennett agreed the idea of endless green is no doubt appealing to drivers, but it may not be realistic.

“There are some distinct challenges that come with that idea,” he said. “The industry standard is that you can coordinate signals that are no more than roughly a half a mile apart. If you start trying to do longer distances than that, the line of cars gets strung out.”

In that scenario, he said, cars on the side streets are forced to wait longer.

The signals along SR-305 that can be coordinated already are, but WSDOT is willing to revisit the idea, Bennett said.

“We’ll meet with whoever is interested to try to work out a better solution,” he said.

Since no specific plan is in place, he didn’t know what changing the signal sequencing might cost.

The issue has been discussed by regional leaders in the past, including at a joint session between the Poulsbo and Bainbridge city councils in 2006. 

Drivers began grumbling about problems long before that, particularly during heavy commute times. 

About half of commuters who drive to and from the ferry terminal each day come from off-island, according to the SR 305 Corridor Vision study, completed last year by the entities that control and are served by the highway.

If no changes were made, peak commute travel times northbound between the terminal and Highway 3 could reach 70 minutes by 2030, the study said; today the average duration of the trip is 50 minutes.

Similarly, traffic queues by 2030 would extend over 1,200 feet at Sportsman Club and Day roads, and at the light near the casino.  

Erickson said working with tribal leaders is essential to the effort’s success, since the casino light already is the source of long backups that regularly extend across the bridge. She said she’s spoken informally with Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman about the idea, but the tribe hasn’t issued any formal response. Forsman didn’t return a phone call for comment this week.

“If we don’t get the one at the casino fixed then this is all for naught,” Erickson said. “If we do this effectively I think it could benefit the tribe too.”

Ultimately, she said, any eventual change should benefit cross traffic as well.

“The point is to improve all traffic,” she said. “If people can’t cross the highway after this then we failed.”

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