Anyone commuting to the Key Peninsula during the evening rush hour is familiar with the long backup at the State Route 16 Purdy exit: drivers having to wait their turn on the shoulder (illegally) so as not to jam highway traffic. Some may have even encountered close calls while trying to meander in without colliding with cars exiting from the Burnham off-ramp, a few hundred feet away.
That hazardous meandering could get resolved — if a preliminary proposal by the city of Gig Harbor goes forward. The city is working on a long-term fix for traffic congestion at the Burnham interchange, and has narrowed it to two solutions. One would create a so-called Single Point Urban Interchange (SPUI), a massive overpass that is as wide as it is long that would help regulate SR-16/Borgen Boulevard traffic. The other, called a “split diamond,” would close the eastbound on- and off-ramp, “moving” it about 4,000 feet, which will reroute traffic through back roads.
“It’s not the solution to the Purdy backup, but it helps with the weaving problem this off-ramp (Burnham) has with Purdy,” said Gig Harbor City Administrator Rob Karlinsey.
Gig Harbor has been facing transportation issues in Gig Harbor North after a traffic study showed that even before St. Anthony Hospital is built, the interchange cannot handle the amount of projected traffic volume increase. Interim solutions were eventually formulated. Once currently approved developments are built, however, the road infrastructure is maxed up again. “We have to look for a long-term fix in order for new development to happen,” Karlinsey said.
Two possibilities out of 15 made it through two stages of a “screening analysis”; the final solution is expected by the end of summer. Karlinsey said both options would cost about the same. “SPUIs are all over the country now,” he said. “It’s designed to handle everything the freeway traffic can throw at it. The downside is that it still brings everything to the same point; it doesn’t distribute traffic like the split diamond does.”
A committee of community and business leaders, elected officials and city representatives has been discussing solutions for Gig Harbor North traffic issues. Jud Morris, president of the Key Peninsula Business Association, attended the group’s last meeting and requested to be added to the task force. “My concern is for the safety of Key Peninsula residents, and (for) how accessible the hospital will be,” he told the KP News. “The (KPBA) members are concerned because one of the reasons the hospital chose that location is being close to the (highway) exit. What is the possibility of mortality issues when you start changing how quickly you can get to the hospital?”
The split diamond would leave the westbound on- and off-ramp in place, but the new exit would take traffic to a new road (to be built) eventually connecting through the back of the YMCA area. Officials with the Franciscan Health Systems (builder of St. Anthony) say they are not making an endorsement except for whatever solution retains access to the hospital (which, by default, would imply the SPUI since the split diamond would most likely add extra commute time).
“We support whatever traffic solution will cause the least interruption to convenient, quick and easy access to the public and emergency vehicles,” said FHS spokesman Gale Robinette. “…It’s critical, it’s absolutely vital that access to the hospital will be easy… Which one is the city’s decision. We haven’t said, ‘This is the one.’ We said, ‘This should be the guiding principle.’” He would not speculate on how much extra time the split diamond would add to emergency response, saying the city’s analysis should determine that.
Emergency access is not the only concern. Bob Dragoo, Peninsula Light Co. CFO and president of the Gig Harbor Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, said not only would the split diamond require potentially millions of dollars of power infrastructure changes, but from the chamber’s point of view, businesses in Gig Harbor North (especially small ones) will greatly suffer. The other problem is for commuters from the Harbor Hill area going east toward Purdy or Kitsap—they would have to essentially backtrack in order to get on the highway. And as one of the residents of the area, he’s speaking from experience.
Regarding the Penlight position, Dragoo said either solution will cost the utility, which in 2003 invested $8 million into infrastructure along Borgen Boulevard. He thinks the SPUI change will cost the utility hundreds of thousands, while the split diamond could take that into millions of dollars.
The chamber’s concern is the “ingress and egress” for shoppers as well as for the hospital, he said. To go around the current exit, “I’m talking major, major minutes,” he said, adding, “The split diamond may be a partial solution to something, but from the standpoint of business and safety, it doesn’t meet the need, except for maybe the technical needs of engineers.”
Jennifer High, Office Depot store manager who is representing a coalition of Gig Harbor North businesses, said it would be tough on all of them. “With the off-ramp closed, commuters will have to go all the way around us and quite frankly, probably just go shopping in Tacoma,” she said. “In the retail environment, convenience is a major factor… It’s important that the city keeps its options open—which I think they are.”
Karlinsey said the city is not officially favoring one option for the other. “We’ve been very open and doing a lot of outreach,” he said, adding that not doing something could mean major long-term economic development loss. “This is a really big deal,” he said. “It will have an economic ripple effect on the region in the billions over time.”