Drivers in downtown Sitka were recently caught off guard when they found the “rules of the road” had changed at the city’s busiest downtown intersection. Early in the morning on Tuesday, May 9,crews from the Alaska Department of Transportation, using some white paint, created a “left turn only” lane at the Lake and Lincoln Street intersection to improve traffic flow during peak congestion. Things did not go as smoothly as planned.

Listen to the full audio version of this story that aired on 5-17-23.

“Traffic tended to get held up behind left hand turn vehicles,” said DOT spokesperson Sam Dapcevich. “And by the time someone was able to make a turn, the light would then turn red again. And so traffic would just build up there.”

Dapcevich said the city approached the state a while back asking for the change. But even though reconfiguring the intersection just takes some paint and a few street signs, it couldn’t happen overnight. Changes to the intersection had to be thoroughly vetted by state engineers, who review traffic counts, inspect at sight lines, and make sure any changes they make will meet federal highway standards.

“We believe it will be an improvement, that it will help keep traffic moving, and I think that’s what people want,” he said. “And then, of course, after a change is made, we still evaluate and see what we can do to improve it.”

After the new lines were painted on the morning of May 9, Sitkans concerned with safety and traffic congestion started offering up improvements online. One person suggested building a Japonski Island bypass bridge. Another thought pedestrian overpasses would help.  But some smaller scale suggestions came up a lot, like a more traffic arrows on the street, direction signs on the traffic lights, and a new light with a protected left turn signal.

Dapcevich said more signage is on the way soon, including signs for the lights, and they’ll be adding more arrows further back to alert drivers to the lane change. But the aforementioned traffic light that some Sitkans think would improve the intersection, isn’t on its way just yet. 

City planning director Amy Ainslie said the change to the lane configuration is a step in the right direction–addressing the Lake and Lincoln intersection was indicated as a high priority in a recent traffic study and also in a survey investigating the impacts of cruise tourism expansion. 

“Something like 30% of respondents work in the downtown area, or on Japonski [Island]. And so there’s an incredible amount of local traffic that needs to come through our downtown area, as well as tourism related traffic and construction traffic,” Ainslie said.

“Our efforts have been ongoing for a couple of years to help make this improvement…just to try and make things a little bit more efficient and easier for residents to navigate and deal with these traffic issues,” she added.

It’s a common misconception that the city has much to do with what happens at this intersection. Lincoln Street is a city street. But since Harbor Drive, a state road, bisects it, the intersection is under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Transportation. Ainslie said the city may request the state make more changes down the line, but for now they want to press pause and see how the new dedicated lane works with the simplest fix. 

“We’re kind of thinking that DOT would probably want to observe that over the next year or so, and make a determination about whether that change alone is adequate and addressing circulation issues, or if further measures need to be taken,” Ainslie said. “We’re certainly going to continue to observe on our end, as well, and make suggestions and advocate for what resident needs are.”

Dapcevich and Ainslie both say they hope Sitkans will be patient and approach the intersection with care while drivers adjust to the change. 

“I talked to an old, longtime Sitka friend who…reminded me that it used to be a four-way stop,” Dapcevich said. “And when they added the light, many years ago, everyone was still stopping at the green light and waiting. The traffic revisions take a little time for everyone to get used to. But we’re going to continue to improve it.”

“We just really appreciate that citizens are working to be aware, to be cautious, especially just moving slowly in our downtown area, and keeping an eye out for pedestrians is really important,” Ainslie said. “Our driving motivation in anything, in terms of the downtown traffic management or closures or anything else, is just safety. We’re just really trying to make sure that people stay safe. And so we’ve we definitely appreciate Sitka drivers help in that.”