Joint Base Lewis-McChord is about to add momentum to a growth spurt that started eight years ago.
The Pierce County base will gain another 1,400 soldiers along with 44 helicopters under an Army plan to build up a combat aviation brigade, Washington congressional leaders announced Tuesday.
The addition of those soldiers would bring the total number of service members stationed at the base to nearly 45,000, with more than 33,000 in the Army alone. Eight years ago, Fort Lewis had 19,000 active-duty soldiers.
The official decision had been anticipated after an environmental study was released several weeks ago. As expected, Colorado will get twice as many soldiers and even more helicopters.
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Washington lawmakers trumpeted the decision as a boon for the South Sound economy, even as they pledged to soften the impacts of the base’s recent growth, such as increased traffic along Interstate 5.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, called the decision “terrific news.” Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell said the additional soldiers and their families “will bring more dollars into the local economy and contribute to the already growing economic impact of JBLM.”
The Army’s environmental study outlining the project doesn’t commit the Pentagon to pay for major road upgrades to the freeway, but state and federal officials say they’re working on efforts to ease traffic between Lacey and Tacoma.
“This will add an important new capability to the team at our state’s largest military installation,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. “But as the base continues to grow, we also need to grow our efforts to care for the service members and their families who make their home on and around the base.”
She and other lawmakers were briefed on the Army’s plans this week, but the Defense Department hasn’t yet released its decision to the public. Officers at Lewis-McChord said they couldn’t comment until the Pentagon issues its official decision, which is expected today.
The aviation brigade is a coveted asset for Lewis-McChord because it enhances training opportunities for infantry units that rely on helicopters when they’re deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Joint Base Lewis-McChord is one of the most important bases on the West Coast, and this fills out its training ability,” said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, who said he learned of the decision from Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff.
The Army’s 11 helicopter brigades are in such high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan that soldiers assigned to them typically deploy overseas every other year, according to the Army’s environmental study. That pace is a key reason for the Army’s push to add aviation resources.
The new brigade is to be assembled from existing units and from some new resources. Dicks said some elements would be stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, though they’d report to a headquarters at Lewis-McChord.
Ninety-nine helicopters are at Lewis-McChord now, with the number rising to 143 as the aviation brigade is established over the next year.
That’s still fewer than what the base had in its previous Fort Lewis days. There were 276 helicopters stationed there in 1985, according to the Army environmental study.
The helicopters would fly out of an airfield already located at Lewis-McChord, though the Army anticipates it will have to invest in some new construction for the aviation units in the next few years.
The official decision to build up an aviation brigade is in keeping with proposals the Army has advanced over the past year to create more helicopter units at Lewis-McChord and at Fort Carson, Colo.
Fort Carson expects to gain an entirely new brigade with 2,700 soldiers and more than 100 helicopters, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado announced Monday.
Some Colorado residents organized themselves to oppose the Fort Carson expansion, creating a group called “Stop the Whop, Whop.” A few Washington residents wrote letters to the Army expressing concerns about traffic and noise, but not on the scale of the Colorado critics.
Local governments in Pierce and Thurston counties followed the Army’s proposals as it sought public comments on how the new units would impact their communities. Lakewood officials wrote a letter highlighting concerns about traffic.
“We love those additional 1,400 soldiers, but we need more support,” Lakewood spokesman Jeff Brewster said Tuesday. “I-5 cuts our city in half, and we get hit with congestion.”