Post-growth studies coming

Lakewood will study the effects of Fort Lewis' growth on surrounding communities, thanks to a $1.8 million grant from a Department of Defense agency.

The funding from the Office of Economic Adjustment pays for two studies: one that looks at transportation pressures, another that assesses the strain of post growth on an array of issues, including housing, education, utilities and public safety.

“The growth of Fort Lewis brings development, but it also brings some challenges we need to study,” said David Bugher, Lakewood’s assistant city manager. “It’s definitely having an impact. We just need to figure out exactly what that impact is going to be.”

Lakewood is the lead agency on the study, which will include input from a variety of stakeholders such as the federal and state governments, community colleges, municipalities, ports and school districts.

Lakewood officials describe it as a bit of a fact-finding mission: By coming up with hard data, Bugher said, local agencies can prepare for growth and have more detailed requests to bring to elected officials in Congress.

The transportation study began in March and is expected to conclude in summer 2010. The growth coordination plan should begin this fall and conclude by December 2010.

Fort Lewis is in the midst of major growth as the Army expands and other bases across the country are shuttered. About 31,000 soldiers are assigned to the post, up from about 19,000 in 2000. The number is projected to reach 32,000 by 2013.

The Army is considering adding a combat service support unit of about 1,000 soldiers and a medium combat aviation brigade of about 2,800 soldiers at Fort Lewis at some point in the coming years.

The post will combine with McChord Air Force Base next year to form Joint Base-Lewis McChord. Almost 6,000 airmen are assigned to McChord; almost all of the growth on the joint base is expected to occur on the Army side.

Fort Lewis plans to cope with its growth by reorganizing into a series of 13 neighborhoods, each anchored by a mixed-use area and designed to be walkable by most who live there. Each neighborhood, according to a master plan unveiled in May, will have wider sidewalks, on-street parking, cafés and restaurants.

McChord has its own master plan, and garrison officials expect to join up the two plans shortly after the installations merge.

Officials from Lakewood and Fort Lewis meet monthly to talk about the growth of the post and its effect on surrounding areas, said Ellie Chambers-Grady, the city’s economic development manager. Only about 30 percent of soldiers and dependents live on Fort Lewis. The rest are spread largely throughout Pierce and Thurston counties, with Lacey (23.7 percent) and Lakewood (16.4 percent) the most affected.

“A larger Fort Lewis is going to have more of an impact because it’s in such a dense area,” Chambers-Grady said. “And it’s also much more visible.”

Geography makes Fort Lewis’ situation unusual. Most of the military’s larger installations are located in the countryside. And the other bases in urban areas – such as Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in southern California – aren’t seeing significant growth.

The transportation study’s main objective is to assess whether local roads can help handle congestion on Interstate 5, which is often jammed for miles near Fort Lewis during rush hour. If the road system doesn’t measure up, the grant provides funding to determine alternative plans.

About $1.3 million of the grant will be spent on the growth coordination plan. The funding allows only for planning, not to kick-start any capital projects.