South Sound residents appreciate Joint Base Lewis-McChord for the jobs it provides and its contribution to national security, but a large share of them want the military to do more to limit the base’s impacts on the communities that surround it.
Those are among the key findings from a survey unveiled last week. It’s intended to help local governments work through traffic, noise complaints and other conflicts that could jeopardize the long-term presence of the military at JBLM.
"We need to do everything we can to make sure this installation stays viable," said Pierce County Councilman Doug Richardson, one of the founders of South Sound Military and Communities Partnership, which sponsored the survey.
In the past, the partnership has surveyed service members stationed at JBLM to gauge their feelings about living in the Puget Sound region.
This time, it asked more than 1,500 Pierce and Thurston County residents to describe how they interact with JBLM, the South Sound’s largest employer.
Large majorities of the respondents indicated the base has a positive impact on the region’s economy and overall quality of life. About three-quarters of them said they worry that a significant troop reduction, if it comes, would hurt the economy.
Almost half of respondents cited traffic as the base’s primary negative impact. About a quarter said noise was their top concern.
It sounds like we need some cold, hard cash.
State Sen. Steve O’Ban on bid to buy private land near JBLM
The South Sound Military and Communities Partnership released the survey at its annual forum Thursday at JBLM.
The organization is mostly backed by local governments in Pierce and Thurston counties. It was initially formed to help the region cope with JBLM’s sudden growth during the Iraq War. During that time, the base’s population of active-duty soldiers almost doubled from 18,000 to 34,000.
Now that the Army is drawing down, the partnership has shifted to protecting the base from new cuts. JBLM is expected to have about 26,000 active-duty soldiers when the downsizing ends in 2020 — fewer than its peak in 2011 but still more than its pre-war strength.
Those soldiers are the largest component in the base’s total population of 39,000 active-duty, National Guard and Reserve military service members. It also has as a civilian payroll that reportedly tops 13,000.
The information from the resident survey could be used by the military to shape how it communicates with residents.
For instance, the data shows more than a third of respondents want the military to do more frequent publicizing of its training and other operations. That could help residents understand the artillery booms they hear and brace for them.
Local governments, meanwhile, can take the data to lobby the state or the Pentagon for programs that would ease the impacts of military training on their communities. The group’s work recently helped persuade state and federal officials to fund a $494 million widening of Interstate 5 that should ease congestion when it’s finished in six years.
About 112,000 Washington residents serve in the active military or in the Reserve. Another 61,000 people have defense-connected jobs.
Members of the partnership are now mounting a case to ask the state for funding that would allow the government to purchase several privately owned properties on the north end of McChord Air Field that the Air Force would like to clear for safety reasons. The bill for buying those properties likely will top $50 million, according to Lakewood officials.
Five state lawmakers attended last week’s forum and pledged to begin looking for ways to buy the land.
"It sounds like we need some cold, hard cash," said Republican Sen. Steve O’Ban of University Place.
The survey comes at the same time the Army is evaluating a pair of new training proposals that could lead to more noticeable military activity in the South Sound and beyond.
One would allow the Army to fire rocket training rounds at JBLM instead of only at the Yakima Training Center; another would open up new parts of the state to regular Army helicopter flights.
Both proposals are controversial because of the likelihood they’d generate noise that would impact civilians. The Army is considering the proposals because they would reduce costs and keep soldiers close to home more often instead of requiring them to travel to distant training areas.
What South Sound residents think about JBLM
▪ 77 percent of respondents say JBLM has a positive impact on the South Sound’s economy
▪ 63 percent said the base has an overall positive effect on the region’s quality of life
▪ 51 percent said the base has a negative impact on traffic congestion
▪ 62 percent believe civilian organizations should do more to help veterans find jobs
▪ 46 percent want to see more military appreciation events
▪ 73 percent worry that troop cuts would hurt the region’s economy
▪ 23 percent cited noise as the biggest drawback to living near JBLM
▪ 37 percent want the base to better publicize military operations
Source: South Sound Military and Communities Partnership survey of Pierce and Thurston County residents