A new combat aviation brigade's arrival at Joint Base Lewis-McChord this summer will make for more traffic on Interstate 5 as soldiers get settled, but it also signals the end of the Army's recent expansion in the South Sound.
The 16th Combat Aviation Brigade is bringing 1,400 more soldiers and 44 new helicopters to Lewis-McChord. After they get established, the Army has plans to add just 600 more soldiers at the base by 2016.
“That is all the additional growth we can see from here,” base spokesman J.C. Matthews said, stressing that plans could change and the Army could choose to continue building up Lewis-McChord.
Since 2003, the Army’s ranks at Lewis-McChord have swelled from 19,000 to more than 32,000, bolstering South Sound’s economy during a recession but also straining the resources of local governments that weren’t prepared for so many soldiers.
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Matthews said the base is working on projects to catch up to its growth, such as expanding a sewage treatment plant and collaborating with local governments on road work planning.
That makes for hundreds of millions of dollars in construction work in the next few years, including some $300 million in President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget proposal.
The growth reflects the Pentagon’s move to joint basing in 2005, a decision that put more resources at fewer bases. Lewis-McChord made the transition to a joint base last year.
The growth also stems from the success of the Stryker, Lewis-McChord’s marquee vehicle, in the Iraq War. Three Stryker brigades are stationed at the base today. That vehicle wasn’t in service until 2002.
“We’ve had a lot of growth,” said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair. “You just never know what’s going to happen. I would’ve never suspected we’d have three Stryker brigades.”
Local politicians crowed about the new aviation brigade in news releases last week, highlighting the Army’s decision to place it at Lewis-McChord as a sign of the base’s importance to the Pentagon and a boost to the South Sound economy.
But some South Sound residents are ready for a breather, at least until the state has a chance to improve roads around Lewis-McChord.
“I used to have evenings free to work around my house, or participate in community activities,” Tacoma resident Deborah Cade wrote in a letter to the Army commenting on the military’s expansion plans. She has commuted to Olympia for work for 15 years.
“Now I generally work late to try to ‘miss’ the traffic backup. Even with leaving my office at 6 or 6:30 (p.m.), I still regularly encounter traffic backups through JBLM, and rarely get home before 7:30 p.m. That is the hour and a half that I used to be able to do something other than work – now it’s gone.”
Army planners were mindful of congestion on I-5 when they responded to Cade and a few other residents who wrote to express concerns about continued growth at Lewis-McChord. They noted that Puget Sound as a region has grown over the past decade, apart from the military’s expansion.
Planners also told residents that the Army scaled down its proposal for the aviation brigade at the base partly to limit traffic impacts. That decision meant Lewis-McChord would gain only about half the 2,700 soldiers who were on the table initially.
Washington transportation officials have identified $1 billion in unfunded capital projects that would improve traffic around Lewis-McChord. For now, they’re doing minor fixes, such as installing stop lights at highway on-ramps and encouraging the base to open more gates.