Special Reports

Gig Harbor traffic jam? Get used to it

Their ears blistered by complaints from commuters, builders of the new Tacoma Narrows bridge have come up with two new ideas to ease morning traffic jams in Gig Harbor.

But they're not promising much relief, at least in the near term.

"I don't think there's much we can do that can alleviate the situation," said Claudia Cornish, the state Department of Transportation's spokeswoman for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Project. "Highway 16 is beyond capacity during the morning commute. That would be there whether we were building a bridge or not."

The commute to Tacoma from Gig Harbor got suddenly worse April 26, after the Transportation Department and Tacoma Narrows Constructors, the bridge contractor, opened a new ramp to eastbound Highway 16 at 36th Street Northwest and shut one at Stone Drive, closer to the bridge.

Since then, traffic has been backing up on nearby streets - for miles in some cases - bringing large areas of the peninsula to a halt each morning.

On Highway 16 itself, the morning snarl lasts longer and sometimes stretches as far as Burnham Drive, seven miles from the bridge.

According to Cornish, brainstorming sessions with traffic engineers have led to these two possibilities:

•Restrict lane changes on the Highway 16 mainline from a point west of Olympic Drive all the way across the bridge. Keeping cars from merging into the left lane would keep bridge traffic moving more steadily and safely, engineers say.

•Keep vehicles entering at Olympic Drive from merging with mainline traffic until after they pass 36th Street. Combining the two merge points into one would reduce the impact on mainline traffic, engineers say, and the new mile-long merge lane would provide more "storage" for cars, drawing them off city streets.

Cornish said both ideas are under consideration, but no decisions have been made yet about whether to act on them.

"Both are being given equal consideration," Cornish said. "We may see both or neither, depending on what the experts say about whether they would make an appreciable difference."

Among those pushing for solutions has been state Rep. Pat Lantz (D-Gig Harbor), a frequent bridge critic who has been stuck in traffic along with her constituents. She worries that access problems in Gig Harbor will remain after both bridges are open in 2008.

"The new bridge will open up development here," Lantz said. "Growth is going to occur in this part of the peninsula, and we are going to have to feed that traffic somehow onto Highway 16. I don't think the people who planned this project gave that enough thought."

"Add to that the impossibility of maneuvering on the surface roads," Lantz said, "and I'm left really unsettled."

Other politicians have weighed in as well.

Gig Harbor Mayor Gretchen Wilbert likes the idea of a foot ferry from Gig Harbor to Tacoma, and state Sen. Bob Oke (R-Port Orchard) has asked the Transportation Department to explore the possibility of an additional eastbound on-ramp, in the vicinity of 24th Street Northwest.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693