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No relief in sight for Gorst traffic snarls

How much traffic is too much?

Anyone who commutes through Gorst from Port Orchard knows traffic starts getting nasty around Tremont and typically gets downright motionless where State Route 16 joins up with Highway 166 (Bay Street) in a convoluted twist of merging lanes. Things speed up a bit during the middle of the day, but the junction is only really clear late at night and very early in the morning.

According to state Department of Transportation counts done last August, only 300 to 400 cars on average merge on or off SR 16 at Bay Street between 2 am. and 3 a.m. — the lowest rate of the day.

Traffic at that intersection is on the rise, too. In comparison to counts done at that same site back in 2000, traffic volume during morning rush hour (5 a.m. to 9 a.m.) increased by approximately 1,100 trips. Evening rush hour (3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) volumes jumped nearly three times as much, by approximately 3,000 trips.

However, given that average traffic in 2000 was estimated at 61,264 trips per day, another 3,000 cars at rush hour may seem like a drop in the bucket. In fact, traffic volume increases of up to 3 percent a year are considered normal in Washington state.

“I think it’s not unusual,” said DOT traffic operations engineer Steve Bennett.

The DOT is required to do counts every three years in order to track traffic volumes, trends and possible shifts in peak times. The counts done in Gorst in August have not yet been fully analyzed, but little out of the ordinary appears in the raw data.

Although traffic has definitely been getting nastier in the morning and staying nastier later in the day — morning peak times have shifted from around 7:15 a.m. to 8:30 or even 11:30 a.m. according to the data — the most congested time to be in Gorst hasn’t budged an inch.

In both 2000 and 2003, 3:45 p.m. was calculated to be the worst possible time to be entering or leaving Gorst. During that hour in 2003, more than 6,200 cars on average passed on or off Bay Street at SR 16.

Local agencies have learned to cope.

Washington State Patrol spokesman Trooper Glen Tyrrell said troopers tend to make plans around Gorst’s most congested times. In preparation for the inevitable fender benders that accompany heavy traffic, he said troopers typically hang out just off the highway in Gorst and at other major intersections such as Sedgwick just in case they’re needed.

“The worst thing would be for all of us to be in Silverdale and to have something happen in Burley-Olalla and trying to get through there,” Tyrrell said. “The alternate routes are not viable alternatives.”

As bad as Gorst is, however, it doesn’t yet register high on any transportation priority lists. DOT spokesman Lloyd Brown said priority is typically given to highway shipping lanes — like those accessing the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and the main route out to Puyallup. Normally clear roads that turn into parking lots at rush hour get higher ratings than roads that are congested yet manageable at all hours, Brown said, but safety issues can bump up a road section even higher on the list.

“A lot more goes into ranking a roadway ... than simply how many cars use it per day,” he said.

A major problem is that Gorst is not an easy site to fix. DOT assistant planning manager Vicki Steigner said the agency once considered widening Gorst’s lanes — the area technically ranks as “deficient” on the state’s congestion index — but ran up against insurmountable environmental concerns. SR 16’s proximity to Sinclair Inlet through that

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