Bridge openings irk drivers

For drivers motoring between Poulsbo and Port Gamble, a 20 minute trip can turn into an hour-long journey without warning.

Hood Canal Bridge opens frequently to allow marine traffic to pass in the canal, or for construction work, which has been common this summer. The openings cause vehicle traffic up on State Route 3 and 104, usually for about a half hour. It happened 72 times in July alone.

Because there’s no holding lane for bridge traffic, drivers heading north and south on SR-3 get caught in the gridlock.

“While people usually move to the shoulder traveling south, they don’t heading toward Port Gamble,” said Kyle Cordes who commutes between Port Gamble and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. “You either have to turn around and take Bond Road or just accept you’re going to be sitting for who knows how long.”

According to state Department of Transportation spokesman Joe Irwin, the agency considered building a bridge holding lane three years ago, but decided it was not feasible “due to a number of design, environmental and financial issues.”

Instead, the agency has focused on communication in Kitsap and Jefferson counties, Irwin said.

But communication is tricky. Department of Transportation isn’t allowed to give drivers advanced warning of bridge openings, because of security protocols mandated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Signs on the highway begin flashing when the bridge opens, but not before. More than 1,000 drivers have signed up to receive text messages from WSDOT when the bridge opens. The messages are activated as the bridge opens and drivers often receive them when they’re already mired in bridge traffic.

“We have been asked on several occasions why our text alerts aren’t sent out before the bridge opens instead of after the fact,” Irwin said. “This is tied into security decisions made after 9/11 that help ensure the safety of drivers and boaters.”

The good news for drivers, Irwin said, is that the number of bridge openings forced by construction should begin tapering off this fall.

WSDOT closed Hood Canal Bridge to vehicle traffic from May 1 to June 3 to replace the eastern span. Since June, the agency has continued work on a number of smaller bridge projects. Last week it finished replacing cables that connect pontoons on the bridge to undersea anchors.

The projects have forced an unusual number of bridge openings, Irwin said. The 72 openings in July was a jump of about 25 from previous months.

WSDOT expects work on the bridge to continue through December, after which traffic interruptions are expected to return to pre-construction levels.

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