A bit of good news for commuters: The morning trip through Joint Base Lewis-McChord has gotten a little easier, at least in one direction.
Anecdotal evidence suggests northbound traffic has stabilized during the mornings since the latter half of 2010, when a crush of traffic caused miles-long backups for residents heading into Pierce County, said Lisa Copeland, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
While she was unable to provide detailed traffic counts because of equipment problems, several commuters told The News Tribune they, too, have seen improvements during that period.
A bit more relief is on the way. Ramp meters that DOT is scheduled to have running by Labor Day should further relieve northbound traffic during busy times. And Lewis-McChord started a construction project on one of its secondary gates last week so that drivers have an easier time leaving the base.
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed 2011-13 budget, however, doesn’t include an estimated $6 million needed to pay for a study of long-term improvements on the key 11-mile stretch from the Thurston-Pierce county line to the state Route 512 junction.
Jennifer Rhodebeck, a civilian paralegal at Lewis-McChord, reported that the commute from her Hawks Prairie home to the base has decreased to about 20 minutes from more than 30 minutes late last year.
She said her husband, Robert, a Lewis-McChord soldier, has been able to leave later for his duty shift each morning.
Dan Penrose, a Lakewood city planner who worked extensively on studies examining the impact of Lewis-McChord’s growth on I-5 and surrounding communities, said his morning commute from Thurston County has “noticeably improved.”
Rhodebeck said the installation’s decision to open the Mounts Road Gate to morning commuters starting in early October has helped ease congestion.
“I think a lot of people are using that,” she said.
Copeland also connected the better flow to the Mounts Road Gate opening. The DOT spokeswoman also mentioned drivers adjusting their commute times, and noted that traffic volumes between November and February are typically lower than in the summer.
However, she said more consistent slowdowns have occurred on southbound I-5 in the morning around the Thorne Lane interchange, where the number of lanes shrinks from four to three. She also said afternoon commutes remain a “grind” in both directions.
“We’re going to keep moving forward,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a problem that’s going to go away.”
The agency will install the ramp meters on the northbound on-ramps at three interchanges in Thurston and Pierce counties that generate a lot of commuter traffic – Marvin, Nisqually and Mounts roads. Plans call for the installation of ramp meters to extend north to Bridgeport Way in the future.
Meanwhile, Lewis-Mc-Chord will close its D Street Gate, which serves North Fort Lewis and connects to DuPont-Steilacoom Road, on Feb. 7 as the construction project progresses. Crews will open an alternate route nearby.
The project will add an outbound lane to the gate and better align the gate with the road that connects to it. Crews are scheduled to finish the job in April.
“That’s a popular gate not only in the morning to get on the base but to leave the base as well,” said Joe Piek, a Lewis-McChord spokesman. “When you only have one lane there that tends to back traffic up quite a bit on the base.”
An average of 3,700 vehicles used the gate to exit Lewis-McChord each weekday, according to a December 2008 traffic count contained in a recent environmental analysis. The average delay to get through the nearby intersection was 34 seconds during the afternoon rush hour, which the study characterized as below an acceptable level.
Traffic has long been a concern for commuters between Lacey and Tacoma, but it reached a flashpoint last summer with a big wave of returning service members and their families. Some 18,000 Lewis-McChord soldiers came home from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010.
The recent study that examined I-5 congestion through the Lewis-McChord area proposed projects that would add capacity to the freeway at an estimated cost of between $960 million and $1.1 billion.
The projects – only conceptual at this point – include major upgrades to four antiquated interchanges, a fourth I-5 travel lane in each direction between Thorne Lane and Mounts Road, and construction of the long-planned cross-base highway.
Copeland said the more detailed study is high on WSDOT’s priority list if additional funding became available.