The JBLM corridor now the bright spot in South Sound’s commuting landscape

Olympia rush-hour traffic

Enjoy the beauty - yes, beauty! - of the rush-hour commute through Olympia.
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Enjoy the beauty - yes, beauty! - of the rush-hour commute through Olympia.

Here’s something Thurston County commuters might have thought they’d never hear: Interstate 5 traffic near Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the bright spot in the latest Corridor Capacity Report from the state Department of Transportation.

The report released last week says evening-commute congestion from Tacoma to Olympia on I-5 decreased from 2013 to 2015, as did the length of delay through the Joint Base Lewis-McChord corridor overall.

But those gains are thought to have contributed to the dark spot in the South Sound traffic picture: the traffic trap near the Tacoma Dome and into Fife.

How slow does traffic get on I-5 through Fife during certain times of the day?

Consider this from Amelia Heath of University Place:

“One time traffic was so slow, I started passing chips back and forth with another vehicle,” Heath told The News Tribune via Twitter. “I think they were Fritos.”

Some might scoff at Heath’s tale, but the DOT report sure makes it seem possible.

The report, which examined changes in traffic flow statewide from 2013 to 2015, showed congestion increased dramatically on I-5 in Tacoma and Fife.

“From 2013 to 2015, the Tacoma Dome and Fife areas experienced significant increases in delay — about 375 percent and 140 percent, respectively,” reported the Transportation Department, which defines “delay” as vehicles moving at speeds of less than 51 mph where the posted speed limit is 60 mph.

The report blames construction projects, a recovering economy and growing population as factors.

Citing numbers from the Puget Sound Regional Council, Sreenath Gangula, a state multimodal mobility and traffic engineer, said population in the greater Puget Sound region grew by 3.1 percent between 2013-2015 and employment by 4.9 percent.

Many of those jobs are in Seattle and King County, and many of the workers taking them are moving south, where they might have a fighting chance at buying a home.

“We know a lot of traffic moves from south to north,” Gangula said.

And north to south at quitting time.

The evening rush on southbound I-5 in Fife now lasts from 2:05 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. most days, an increase of 1.3 hours from 2013-15.

“The percent of days the Federal-Way-to-Tacoma commute operated in severely congested (36 mph or below) condition significantly worsened between 2013 and 2015,” the report states.

“For example, at 5 p.m., the percent of days experiencing severe congestion increased from 77 percent in 2013 to 94 percent in 2015.”

Hot spots

Drivers who feel that the rush “hour” through Tacoma and Fife is getting worse are right.

The length of time when routine congestion clogged northbound I-5 near the Tacoma Dome during the morning commute increased by 2.6 hours from 2013-15, the Transportation Department reported.

The morning rush now lasts from 5:05 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. most days.

Coming home from points north is a drag, too. The evening rush on southbound I-5 in Fife now lasts from 2:05 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. most days, an increase of 1.3 hours from 2013-15.

Theories as to why abound.

Transportation Department spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker said part of the trouble might be construction on southbound state Route 167, where crews have been building a sound wall, adding a carpool lane near the city of Pacific, and replacing a culvert.

“Some people might be using southbound I-5 as an alternative,” Bingham Baker said. “When you have construction projects in one area, you often see a ripple effect further downstream.”

Also, Fife is where the carpool lanes from King County run out, turning back into general purpose lanes.

But there’s no getting around the fact that two huge construction projects in Tacoma are contributing factors.

Crews have been working for more than two years to build a new northbound I-5 bridge over the Puyallup River and to replace pavement and widen I-5 near the Tacoma Dome for the eventual construction of carpool lanes in the area.

This in an area where as many as 200,000 vehicles per day converge from multiple highways.

“Construction and temporary lane re-configurations on I-5 in this area led to higher-than-normal traffic friction in 2015, which contributed to the delay increase,” according to the Corridor Capacity Report.

Those projects likely won’t be completely finished until 2021, although some “incremental improvement” is expected before then, said Steve Kim, Olympic Region traffic engineer.

JBLM corridor

Folks who drive along JBLM might have a different opinion, but Transportation Department numbers show the commute improving along that stretch.

“Despite these growth challenges to the north, the JBLM area saw an approximate 80 percent decrease in congestion compared to 2013,” according to the Corridor Capacity Report.

For example, the 4:50 p.m. commute for a lone driver between Tacoma and Olympia decreased from an average of 43 minutes in 2013 to 41 minutes in 2015. The “reliable commute time” slipped from 68 minutes in 2013 to 61 minutes to make that 26-mile trip.

Despite the growth challenges to the north, the JBLM area saw an approximate 80 percent decrease in congestion compared to 2013, according to the Corridor Capacity Report.

“This can partially be attributed to the implementation of 18 new ramp meters through the JBLM corridor in May 2015,” according to the Transportation Department.

Other improvements, including the reconfiguration of the Berkeley interchange, also might have contributed to the improvement.

Alas, the Transportation Department is to begin a nine-year project soon to widen I-5 through the JBLM corridor and rebuild other interchanges in that area.

Bingham Baker said the work might lead to some delays but they will be “nothing like what we see in Tacoma.”

For one thing, only about 120,000 cars per day drive along the JBLM corridor, she said.

The future

So what about the future?

Transportation Department officials said that’s a hard question to answer.

“We know not one thing is going to solve the ‘delay’ issue,” said Lars Erickson, the agency’s communications director. “We have to use all the tools at our disposal.”

That includes building more carpool lanes through Pierce County (plans on are the books), installing more ramps meters (also on the books) and expanding transit options.

According to Transportation Department reports, buses moved an average of 9,277 people on the south Puget Sound I-5 corridor during the morning and evening peak periods last year, an increase of 7 percent from 2013.

“Without transit, approximately one extra lane would be needed to meet capacity demand on this stretch of I-5,” the agency reported.

But transit times are creeping up, too.

“Congestion affects transit operations, especially when transit is mixed in with general traffic due to lack of HOV lanes or transit-only facilities,” the Corridor Capacity Report states.

Help will be coming, eventually.

Voters in the urbanized areas of Pierce, King and Snohomish counties earlier this month approved the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure, which will extend light rail to Tacoma by 2030 and expand the Sounder commuter train as far south as DuPont.

“We have to look at the whole system. We have to get more capacity across the board,” Erickson said. “You can’t just look at the highways.”

Adam Lynn: