The Lake and Lincoln Street intersection may have a different traffic pattern next summer to alleviate traffic flow problems (KCAW/Rose)

Sitka’s made it over the hump of what was originally predicted to be the busiest cruise season in the town’s history. And while there’s still over a month to go, city officials are already exploring changes for next year. At the top of the list:  Sitka’s bustling downtown intersection may be getting a makeover.

This summer, the corner of Lake and Lincoln streets in Sitka is livelier than ever. Throngs of visitors wait for their opportunity to cross, and every ten minutes or so a big motorcoach or two will pull through, their tails coated in dust from multiple trips out Halibut Point Road to Sitka’s new cruise terminal. On many days, Lincoln Street is blocked off to vehicle traffic, and transformed into a pedestrian mall. 

While it may look a little like the entrance to Disneyland, for some drivers in Sitka it hasn’t felt magical, especially during rush hour traffic.  

“One of the number one pieces of feedback that I hear continually is that the Lake — Lincoln intersection is a problem,” says city planning director Amy Ainslie. She agrees that the Lincoln Street intersection as it works now isn’t really working, and a significant change is needed before next summer. 

“Especially to account for…that left turn when you’re on Lake Street trying to turn left onto Lincoln. That can really backup traffic towards the roundabout,” Ainslie says.  

The intersection has been an issue in previous summers, with far fewer cruise passengers in town. So it’s not surprising that Sitkans began expressing frustration with the situation in the early summer months. But the fix is not straightforward because the city shares the intersection with the state Department of Transportation (DOT). Ainslie says that something as simple as hiring crossing guards or a traffic conductor to cover the intersection during the busiest days requires involvement of the state. 

“Because you’re either guiding traffic through that DOT intersection or you’re using cross guards to cross a DOT right-of-way, they also need to be involved in that traffic control plan,” she says.

Ainslie says the city has been working with the DOT to make sure the intersection is prioritized before next summer.  Sam Dapcevich is a spokesperson for DOT. He says in late July, they sent a regional traffic and safety engineer to Sitka to study the intersection.

“And they observed the conditions at the busy time of day, and made some adjustments to the light,” Dapcevich says. “They added some time to the Lake Street phase to keep traffic flowing better.” 

He says the engineer took measurements of the lane, which will be plugged into a computer program to find a long term solution, potentially reconfiguring the traffic lanes. 

“There might be a left turn only lane, and then a straight through or right turn lane, which should alleviate traffic,” Dapcevich says. “That would be if you’re coming from the Lake Street direction towards the bridge.”

But it isn’t just the intersection that needs a second look. As buses unload at Harrigan Centennial Hall, passengers should either walk to the Lincoln Street intersection, or head past the library to a crosswalk. But many choose to jaywalk, on a section of road with a notorious blind spot created by a combination of a curve and on-street parking. Ainslie says they’re looking at adding crosswalks in a couple of locations to try to help funnel the added pedestrian traffic.

The city funded its own traffic study after learning that this would be a record visitor year.  Consultants were in town just a couple of weeks ago, observing pedestrians and traffic patterns and they’ll be analyzing that data over the next few months. Ainslie hopes the report will help make the city’s case for changes to the Lincoln Street intersection. In the meantime, she’s happy with how Sitkans have responded to the challenging circumstances.

“We’ve got small streets, we have some difficult corners. And then we have people who are just completely unfamiliar and on vacation, fully on vacation, not always looking where they’re going,” Ainslie says.

“I know, I know, people are frustrated, and rightfully so,” she adds. “But I also still see people being cautious, I see people looking out. Citizens have done a lot to accommodate…these increased numbers…to try and keep people safe.” 

Editor’s Note: Last week (8-27-22), KCAW spoke with the city’s planning director Amy Ainslie at length on the city’s response to this summer’s record-breaking cruise season and plans for next year. We’ll have more from that conversation on Raven News next week.