If something isn’t done to fix the Interstate 5 bottleneck from Joint Base Lewis-McChord south to Lacey, the ability of the cities on the I-5 corridor to grow economically might be significantly impaired.
That’s according to leaders in Lakewood, DuPont, Steilacoom and Lacey who hope to see $820 million worth of road improvements approved by the Legislature – far more than what state lawmakers seem ready to pledge.
If the cities get their way, that stretch of freeway could see new lanes added for the first time in almost 40 years.
On an average weekday, close to 120,000 vehicles travel the short stretch of interstate. During peak times, a sea of brake lights illuminates the roadway as drivers are funneled from four to three lanes. Add tens of thousands of drivers merging from the military base, and the roadway quickly becomes a parking lot.
“This traffic, this congestion, places us at a competitive disadvantage from an economic-development standpoint,” Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield said. “This issue of transportation is not going to go away. It needs to be addressed now.”
The Lakewood City Council has listed the widening of I-5 as a top legislative priority for 2014. It has joined with the cities of DuPont and Lacey, the town of Steilacoom and Lewis-McChord leaders to work with the Washington State Department of Transportation to find a solution.
The municipalities are trying to keep pressure on the Legislature to make sure funding for the proposed widening isn’t passed over for road projects to the north in King County.
“We’re working together to figure out the solutions, but now it’s the Legislature’s place to invest in those solutions,” DuPont Mayor Michael Grayum said. “If you just do this thing piecemeal, it’s not going to work. You have to do it in a way that people will feel and see a measurable difference.”
The Senate’s proposed $12.3 billion transportation package dedicates $350 million to the project, far short of the cities’ $820 million price tag. The Senate package calls for an 11.5-cent-per-gallon hike in the state gas tax in three years.
Lawmakers could act on it during a special session this year, or during next year’s regular 60-day session – or they could come up with another alternative.
Funding at the Senate’s level would reconstruct the Thorne Lane and Berkeley Street interchanges, allowing for expansion of I-5 to eight total lanes in the stretch that sees the worst backups. It also would allow cars to drive on the shoulder during peak times between Berkeley Street in south Lakewood to Mounts Road south of DuPont.
Full funding at the cities’ level would replace four interchanges – Thorne, Berkeley, Steilacoom-DuPont Road and the 41st Division/Main gate interchanges. Three of those were built in the 1950s and were designed in a way that has prevented the widening of I-5.
State transportation officials are still studying the best lane configurations and interchange designs, but two scenarios under review would expand the lanes from six to 10.
Caulfield knows requesting the full $820 million is asking a lot, but said that if the state doesn’t commit now the cost will only go up and the backups will get worse.
“Given the issues and the congestion in this corridor, I don’t think they can wait,” he said.
The last time I-5 was widened through Pierce County near the base was in 1975. Since then, the county’s population has grown by 93 percent. Thurston County has grown by 228 percent.
Much of that growth was absorbed by the cities in the Lewis-McChord corridor, including DuPont, which was the fastest-growing city in Pierce County between 2000 and 2010.
Lewis-McChord saw its population increase from 27,000 people in 2003 to 62,000 people in 2013.
Base Commander Col. Charles Hodges Jr. knows his installation contributes to the congestion during peak hours, but backups also occur on weekends, he said.
Hodges doesn’t think military downsizing, including the loss of one of its Stryker brigades, will do much to reduce congestion on I-5.
“We need it,” Hodges said of the widening. “Even if you take away one brigade we still need road improvements.”
Meanwhile, work is being done on base to keep people from pouring onto the freeway’s trouble spots. Expansion of heavily used Pendleton Avenue to four lanes and the addition of a road connecting McChord Field to Pendleton should reduce the number of cars entering I-5, Hodges said.
Construction is set to begin on the connector road soon. It should be open by spring 2015.
Hodges hopes drivers will use the road to move from McChord Field to the main base area instead of I-5 like they do now.
For its part, the state has received federal money to pay for traffic cameras and ramp metering to control access to I-5 from Lewis-McChord, but state leaders aren’t holding their breath for more. The metering and traffic cameras will go live in spring.
In Lakewood, Caulfield hopes the growing South Sound communities have a loud enough voice to be heard. If the $820 million request is denied, he hopes state leaders would at least bump the $350 million allotment closer to $500 to $600 million. That would allow for redevelopment of the four interchanges.