Congestion causing SR3 accidents

POULSBO — Speed isn’t the problem and local drivers cause as many accidents, if not more, as cut-through traffic.

These were just a few of the messages to attendees to the State Route 3 Route Development Plan (RDP) public meeting June 24.

The meeting, the second of three, is part of a Washington State Department of Transportation effort to plan for the next 20 years of the stretch of SR 3 between Poulsbo’s State Route 305 junction and the Hood Canal Bridge. Besides public meetings, the process has involved meetings of a stakeholders committee and also technical analysis by WSDOT staff.

The first public meeting was held in March, where residents were asked to list the positives and negatives they saw along the route and also give ideas for potential projects in the area. For the most part, residents saw excessive speed, commercial vehicles, dangerous crossings and too much congestion as major problems.

After analysis, staff came back this week to tell citizens that speed was not one of the issues that would be addressed in the planning. Though many residents asked for the speed to be lowered in the area, Steve Bennett of the WSDOT traffic office said that the average driver in the area is only traveling one to two miles per hour in excess of the posted speed limit.

“Let’s say we set the speed out there at 35. You’d have a small number of people going 35-40, a bigger number going 40-50 because that’s the speed the road was designed for and it’s comfortable. And then you’ll always have the crazies who drive well in excess of the speed limit,” Bennett said. “You don’t want to set up a situation where you have a big variety of speeds, that’s where you get more accidents.”

The bigger factors in accidents along the route are actually right of way issues, going too fast for the conditions and shoulder passing, which are all associated with congestion, said Helmut Steele, assistant manager of the Washington State Patrol’s district office in Bremerton. Steele added that Kitsap County is unique among the seven counties he deals with because it has a relatively high level of cars to residents and is the only one with no interstate highway.

“So one of the biggest factors that we deal with is congestion,” he said.

Planner Vicki Steigner with the WSDOT also pointed out a chart that showed average car volumes on SR 3 during different times of the day against the times accidents typically occur. She said she was surprised to find out that the highest number of accidents actually occur at about 3 p.m., rather than the peak hour of 5 p.m. In fact, many spikes in accidents occur in off-peak traffic hours.

“What it tells us is there’s a strong correlation between local traffic and the accident rate, so any solution we come up with has to address access and also smoothing traffic flow,” she said.

No residents attending knew this more than Tytler Road residents Mary Graves and Dan Fritts, who turn onto SR 3 near the Hilltop Grocery. Graves said she understands how local drivers could become desperate and make dangerous moves that cause accidents.

“We’re the poor souls you see waiting in line, sometimes 15 minutes at a time, to get access to that road,” she said.

Fritts added that a shoulder-widening project near the corner has recently made their access to SR 3 even dicier.

The Tytler residents expressed frustration that their suggestion of adding lights had all but been dismissed by planners. Bennett explained that lights could make the stretch more dangerous for drivers, but the residents disagreed.

“I’d like to see the road go away altogether but short of that happening in my lifetime, I’d like to see a light put in,” Graves said. “Highway 99 was a light-free highway when we moved here 15 years ago but now its lights as far as you can see. And why is that? Because people couldn’t get out onto the highway.”

But while not all of the resident’s ideas made the preliminary cut, there was one group smiling Thursday night. A handful brought an idea to the first public meeting that a new highway could be built on Pope and Talbot land east of the current highway. Preliminary WSDOT studies of a bypass route have shown potential issues with wetlands and steep and unstable slopes and that the state owns none of the right of way that would be needed. But staff were still interested in talking with residents about the option this week.

“There’s absolutely no decision on that now and where the funding would come from is anybody’s guess,” Bennett commented.

Though it appears to still be a long shot, seeing the suggestion was being considered made quite a few attendees happy. The station was certainly the most popular of all the information areas at the open house and the majority of comments were to keep working on the issue.

“The last meeting, they hadn’t even thought about this and now they’ve got a drawing of it,” new highway proponent Jerry Reitan said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

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