Gig Harbor looks to ease traffic in Uptown area, finds “bigger issue than we assumed”

Gig Harbor-area residents familiar with the intersection at Point Fosdick and Olympic drives are also also familiar with avoiding it at its busiest times. The number of vehicles using it during rush hour has more than tripled in the decade since the Uptown shopping center opened, making it the most congested intersection in the city.

Now a proposed shopping complex that includes a new, 64,000-square-foot Fred Meyer store has left some people questioning whether traffic on the Uptown side of state Route 16 has reached a tipping point.

“When Fred Meyer opens, that’s going to be a mess,” said Monnie Mowen, who lives in Spinnaker Ridge on the other side of the highway.

Gig Harbor planners are also looking for some answers. The city has requested additional traffic analysis “to understand what’s happening,” senior engineer Emily Appleton said.

The new development is planned at the former site of Fife RV. Also planned for the site is a 57,000-square-foot family fun center with a bowling alley and arcade, plus a 13,000-square-foot PetSmart and three other buildings totaling 40,000 square feet of retail space.

An additional 589 car trips are projected at the intersection from 4-6 p.m., Appleton said. That’s according to a traffic study done to estimate the project’s impact on the surrounding area.

The extra traffic will have to squeeze in among the rest of the vehicles that arrived after Uptown opened. A traffic count from 2004 recorded 1,100 vehicles during one peak evening hour. Today, the intersection averages 3,600 vehicles for the same period.

“I wouldn’t come up here during 5 o’clock traffic to shop,” Fox Island resident Judie Hill said.

Hill, Mowen and Fox Island resident Margie Weisgram got together recently at a local Starbucks. The three, all retired, said they plan their meet-ups and shopping trips in Uptown for when they know most people will be at work.

When they have to pass through the area during its busiest times — typically the evening commute or weekends — they do their best to avoid Olympic and its access points to SR 16.

They wondered last week how much worse it would get with the new development.

Gig Harbor feels the grip of growth on two sides. The north end booms with new neighborhoods being built along the Borgen Boulevard corridor and a shopping district anchored by a Costco store. Traffic on Borgen is not controlled by traffic signals but by a series of roundabouts.

Meanwhile, Uptown remains dominated by traditional traffic lights, none more active than the Point Fosdick-Olympic intersection.

It already has dual turn lanes and timed signals. But its proximity to the highway entrance and exit ramps, combined with heavy surface-street traffic, leads to regular delays.

The city had a third party complete a traffic study after Pierce County and state Department of Transportation officials raised questions about a previous study.

The state was worried about the highway interchange, but the recently released outside analysis shows the impact of additional growth would be less than expected, said Joseph Perez, Olympic region assistant traffic design engineer.

“Based on our analysis, we don’t show backups on the state facilities,” Perez said Friday.

The report contains recommendations for the city to consider to help improve traffic at Olympic and Point Fosdick drives and at the traffic signals controlling the highway ramps, he said.

The report was released midweek. It identified problems planners weren’t expecting, Appleton said.

She wouldn’t specify what the review found, saying the city is still reviewing the results.

“It showed the state’s intersections would function all right, but we do have a bigger issue than we assumed at Olympic and Point Fosdick,” she said.

The city has already done the “easy” traffic fixes, such as widening Point Fosdick. The only improvements left as options are “the really big ones,” though Appleton said it’s still too early to know what that might include.

Congestion around Uptown is not a new problem, but fixing it shouldn’t fall exclusively on the last developer to come in, Gig Harbor Mayor Jill Guernsey said.

“What you require has to be roughly proportional to the impact caused by the proposed project,” she said.

Proposed by University Place development company WWR Properties, the new shopping center is still in the permit phase. The city is close to issuing a state-required environmental assessment that shows potential impacts on the surrounding area — everything from air quality to traffic — and proposes ways the developer could lessen those impacts.

The developer already has paid traffic impact fees, which were used to help pay for previous improvements to Point Fosdick.

The city also plans to continue 32nd Avenue Northwest from its start at 56th Street Northwest to the light at Olympic Drive and 50th Street Court Northwest. The road currently dead ends behind the proposed development. Adding entrance points is one way the city hopes to spread out cars accessing the site, city planner Dennis Troy said.

The project will move the Fred Meyer across the highway. The new store would be bigger but still focus mostly on grocery goods. It’s not known yet what might fill the empty space at 5500 Olympic Drive.

The move also means there will be three grocery stores — Fred Meyer, QFC and Safeway — on the Uptown side of the highway and none on the waterfront side.

Guernsey sees it as a chance for the city to bring in new development where Fred Meyer now stands.

“I clearly think this would present an opportunity for maybe not a huge grocery store to come in, but maybe something unique to come in,” the mayor said. “The city is more than willing and looks forward to working with the property owners for how to develop the site.”