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Future freeway ramps will target congestion at Olympia’s busiest intersection

New freeway ramps are being proposed for Olympia’s west side to battle congestion at the city’s busiest intersection and beyond.

According to traffic counts, the stretch of Black Lake Boulevard between U.S. Highway 101 and Cooper Point Road averages 37,500 to 42,000 vehicles a day.

The city predicts that mounting traffic will cause the intersection at Black Lake and Cooper Point to “fail” in the next six years, which means a driver could wait through three or more cycles at a traffic light.

Relief is several years away. The West Olympia Access Project calls for new freeway ramps at Kaiser Road and Yauger Way, with the former anticipated for construction in 10 to 15 years. Once the on- and off-ramps are built at Kaiser Way, an off-ramp extension at Black Lake Boulevard that connects with Yauger Way would come next.

During evening peak hours, the new freeway access points could divert as many as 600 vehicles an hour from the Black Lake-Cooper Point intersection, said Perry Shea, president of consulting firm SCJ Alliance.

Shea joined city staff Tuesday to update the Olympia City Council about the project. Last June, the council hired the consultant to complete an Interchange Justification Report, which must be approved by the state Department of Transportation before the freeway ramps can be designed and built.

That report is expected to be completed in early 2016, with the scope of consulting work budgeted at $1.5 million, according to the city. The report stems from the West Olympia Access Study, which was completed in 2010 by the city and WSDOT.

The estimated cost of the freeway project would be about $39 million, less than half the original estimate of $86 million, Shea said Tuesday. He said the project uses reasonable projections to plan for future population and traffic growth.

“When you think out 20 years, that’s a tough mark to gauge,” he told the council. “You don’t want to overbuild.”

With both the Capital Mall and the Olympia Auto Mall, Olympia’s west side plays an important role in the city’s economy. The city reports that Olympia’s west side generates about half of total taxable retail sales and supports 17,000 jobs. Olympia’s west side also includes South Puget Sound Community College and The Evergreen State College, both of which are accessed by U.S. 101, and the Thurston County Courthouse.

The new ramps are crucial to the economic vitality of the west side, said Randy Wesselman, the city’s transportation engineering and planning manager. Aside from reducing traffic at Black Lake Boulevard and Cooper Point Road, the ramps will improve access to Capital Medical Center, the west side’s lone hospital.

“All roads lead to that intersection,” Wesselman told the council.

One of the project’s key supporters is the West Olympia Business Association. Board president Jim Randall said congestion hurts businesses along Cooper Point Road. The west-side traffic is only going to get worse, he said, as the city prepares for 20,000 new residents in the next 20 years.

“It’s not going to solve all the problems,” Randall said of the proposed freeway ramps, “but I think it will be a significant step in the right direction.”

Many of Olympia’s busiest intersections are near Capital Mall.

At the Black Lake Boulevard intersection, nearly 30,000 vehicles travel on westbound Cooper Point Road each day, according to city traffic counts. Cooper Point Road’s junctions at Evergreen Park Drive and Capital Mall Drive see an average of 25,000 vehicles a day or more. Farther east, several intersections along Harrison Avenue average more than 20,000 vehicles a day, such as at the Perry Street and Olympic Way junctions.

The only other road that rivals the traffic count at the Black Lake-Cooper Point intersection is on the opposite side of Olympia, along westbound Pacific Avenue near Fones Road. That stretch averages 35,000 to 40,000 vehicles daily, according to the city.

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