Those who drive the dreaded Highway 305 north and south through Bainbridge Island at rush hour have had smiles on their faces more often lately.
But it remains to be seen if that will last.
The improved traffic flow on the highway can be attributed to the fact that Suquamish Tribal police officers are directing traffic at the intersection of Highway 305 and Suquamish Way NE, just north of the Agate Pass Bridge. From 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays, officers are determining when the cross street traffic on Suquamish Way will move, instead of automatically tripped stoplights.
“I’ve had dozens of favorable comments,” said Bainbridge Island Police Chief Matthew Hamner. “People stop me and ask me ‘Can we please adjust the lights to match what officers are doing now?’”
Hamner said he even received an email from a woman who said the change had cut her nightly commute from two hours to 45 minutes.
Suquamish Police Chief Mike Lasnier said drivers are so pleased that they’ve gone out of their way to find the police department to thank him personally.
“People are bringing my officers coffee and treats while they’re working at the intersection,” he said. “I even had a couple of attorneys from Bainbridge Island offer to fundraise to cover the costs of keeping the officers there.”
But that’s probably not going to happen, Lasnier said.
Right now, the officers are being paid by Kitsap Transit to direct traffic through the intersection while construction is underway. Lasnier said he was asked to have officers there until new traffic lights, which are expected in late July, arrive.
Because the highway is a state highway the Washington State Patrol was asked first to direct traffic at the busy intersection, but couldn’t due to staffing constraints.
“It’s a week-by-week thing,” Lasnier said. “We’re not sure how long we’ll be there. But we’ll do it as long as we can.”
Washington Department of Transportation spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker said the department has tweaked the light at that intersection “many times over the years.”
She said one of the issues is that drivers on Highway 305 get distracted because traffic is moving so slowly they do other things.
“They’re on the phones or they’re texting someone and they allow gaps between cars,” she said.
That causes the automatic underground traffic regulators to think there is no traffic and the light turns red. That will change when new equipment is installed, however.
“The new signals will have video cameras and they’ll be able to recognize when traffic is there,” Bingham Baker said.
The intersection is among those that the department gets many complaints about, she said.
“It’s definitely one that yields customer dissatisfaction,” she said. “We want to do what we can do to improve the flow of traffic there.”
According to Kitsap Transit spokesman Sanjay Bhatt, the permanent traffic signals and street lights for the intersection are on back order and not expected to be installed before the end of July.
He added that a “transit jump lane” will be activated and will allow buses an early green light to get ahead of traffic.
“We’re not sure how that will impact things,” Bhatt said. “We don’t know yet about the timing of the lights. Once we have everything in place, that will be finessed.”
Kitsap Transit received a $2.3 million grant to relocate a nearby park-and-ride, but when it was able to negotiate a deal to use spaces in the Clearwater Casino’s new parking garage, the grant money was transferred to the state Department of Transportation for the intersection improvements.
Hamner, Bainbridge’s police chief, said there’s been some other positive things about the officers directing traffic.
“One of the biggest things about this, is that it’s also improving traffic on Miller Road, Hidden Cove and Seabolt (roads),” he said.
Some drivers use those back streets as shortcuts to avoid waiting in the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway, he said.
“Drivers speed down those side roads at the very same time of day that little kids are being let off of the school buses,” Hamner said. “With the changes, we’re seeing less of that and it’s actually making things safer.”
Hammer gives credit to the Suquamish officers for the improved traffic flow on 305.
“Obviously, they are doing a very good job,” he said. “We’re grateful to them. It’s much, much better. We’re seeing a great benefit to what’s happening. It’s multitudes better. People are happier.”
But Lasnier said the department can’t have officers there over the long term.
“We’re happy to help out,” Lasnier said.
“But this won’t last forever,” and he joked that he was concerned that his officers are so good looking that “they might cause a distraction.”