Pierce and Thurston counties hold twice as many people as they did the last time Interstate 5 was widened next to Washington’s largest workplace, Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Plans are in place and money in hand to add lanes on I-5 alongside the base in a six-year project that will affect everybody who drives between Olympia and Tacoma.
First, expect more congestion, as construction crews work around 120,000 vehicles a day.
Then, hopefully, comes relief.
Less gridlock at spots such as the Thorne Lane exit, which locals know to avoid at afternoon rush hour as cars leaving JBLM and Camp Murray head for the freeway at the point where it narrows.
“This is such a zoo,” said David Anderson, president of the local neighborhood association. “You can’t get out. You can’t get in.”
From the spot where Anderson stood to a point seven miles south, I-5 is to be transformed by $494 million from an 11.9-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in July.
Concept plans drawn up by the state Department of Transportation call for an extra northbound lane from Mounts Road to Steilacoom-DuPont Road and a lane in each direction from that point to Thorne.
Still to be decided is whether to restrict the new lanes to carpools.
The expansion would bring at least eight lanes of traffic to nearly all of the highway bordering the base.
One mile between Thorne and Berkeley Avenue would stretch a full 10 lanes wide counting a couple of exit lanes, one existing and one to be built as part of the project.
Drivers headed north from Thurston County should see a less clogged highway. Drivers headed south, though, could see a new bottleneck at Center Drive — six miles farther south than they are used to — because the highway isn’t being widened to the south.
City officials in Lacey question whether the project merely moves the choke point south.
To some degree, it does, said Bill Elliott, engineer on the project, but it shouldn’t be as severe as what drivers see now because of the high traffic volume that exits the highway at Center Drive.
Regulatory, permitting and design work is to be done in time to start work in 2017 on the portion of the highway north of JBLM’s main gate.
The plan is to open that northern stretch to traffic in 2020 and finish the southern portion in 2023.
A booming Puget Sound area, not just the base, has brought more cars to this part of I-5. Most of the 76 percent increase in traffic over the past three decades came before the base’s massive growth over more than a decade of war.
The joint Army-Air Force base has shed some of that growth, but it still includes the largest Army presence west of Texas. JBLM is Pierce County’s largest employer and although it’s not the largest in the state — that’s Boeing — it’s the largest in a single workplace.
The expansion requires demolishing the overpasses that carry Thorne, Berkeley and Steilacoom-Dupont over I-5, bridges that aren’t wide enough to allow for an eight-lane interstate.
Three new bridges would provide enough room for this and future expansions and will become part of major new intersections known as “dog bone” interchanges because of their shape.
They are more elaborate versions of the traffic circles that sometimes confuse drivers but that are becoming more common because they reduce delays and collisions, traffic engineers say.
The Transportation Department plans to separate the three overpasses from railroad tracks that run along I-5 through southern Pierce County.
Today, the tracks carry only the occasional freight train. But in 2017, Amtrak trains are to start using the route at maximum speeds of 79 mph, despite complaints from local residents and city officials in Lakewood about noise, traffic and safety.
Separating the tracks from the high-traffic local streets is music to Anderson’s ears. He’s worried that a child will be hit.
CONNECTOR ROAD, BIKE PATH
Another benefit of the project from his perspective is a proposed local street that would give residents a way into and out of their neighborhood without using the highway.
Today the Thorne and Berkeley I-5 exits provide the main access to Tillicum and neighboring Woodbrook.
Surrounded by JBLM, American Lake, Tacoma Golf and Country Club and Camp Murray, the neighborhoods are an isolated pocket of poverty.
More than 91 percent of Tillicum Elementary School students are eligible for meal subsidies, more than almost any other school in Western Washington.
“It would be our own connector road to the rest of the world,” Anderson said.
But the road, one lane in each direction connecting Thorne with Gravelly Lake Drive, is no sure thing. The state proposes to use part of the golf club’s property and acquire four private homes belonging to members of the club.
“We’re disappointed that this was their first effort,” said Josh Bridge, general manager of the golf club. “We’re working with the DOT to come up with other options so they don’t have to take these four homes and (land from the) golf course.”
The connector road would run on right-of-way belonging to Sound Transit, but a bicycle and pedestrian path envisioned as part of the project would encroach on the golf club.
Bridge questioned the need for a path, at least as designed, and noted that the Transportation Department hasn’t studied how much it would be used.
The pedestrian path is built into the I-5 widening project from end to end. Sixteen feet wide, including a buffer, it would run mostly along the western side of the highway with stretches on the other side or local streets.
Without it, the highway would continue to be the way pedestrians enter and leave Tillicum and the way cyclists ride between Lakewood and DuPont.
“You have no alternative but to ride on the shoulder of I-5,” said Bill Elliott, engineer on the project.
The widening project doesn’t require major land purchases, but the golf course and nearby homes aren’t the only private properties the state is eying.
Elliott said the agency would seek to acquire land containing another three homes, a business and possibly some apartments.
That was a surprise to Evelyn Barrett, owner of the Tillicum commercial property in the project’s way, and to her tenant, Action Rentals.
“That’s a real body slam,” Bob Chamblee, the owner of the boat-rental business, said upon hearing the news. He said he’s finally this year paying off on his equipment after owning Action Rentals for more than a decade.
The project will affect other businesses along its route.
Galloping Gertie’s restaurant, a landmark in Tillicum for more than 60 years, could lose its prime location just off the Berkeley exit.
Owner Sue Rothwell worries that the tall overpass essentially would leave the restaurant in a pit, lowering her property value.
“What I fear is I’ve lost my whole lifetime investment here,” she said.
JBLM is in for some changes as well.
If the state moves the Steilacoom-Dupont Road overpass 1,000 feet to the north as planned, it will require a new and relocated gate into the base
But that needs to happen anyway for security reasons, base officials say. The new entrance would be harder to approach at high speeds.
The ease of commutes for service members and civilian employees working on base hinges on the project’s success. Of the more than 32,000 vehicle entrances to the base each weekday morning, more than 20,000 are along I-5.
Reviewing state plans so far, JBLM officials like what they see.
“They are designed to accommodate ... on and off movement on the installation while also protecting north-south movement on I-5,” said Lt. Col. Andy McQuade, deputy chief of staff for the base.
But construction will require patience, JBLM spokesman Joe Piek cautioned.
It’s “short-term pain,” he said, “for long-term gain.”
The state Department of Transportation is holding a community meeting to explain the proposed rebuilding of the Interstate 5 interchanges at Berkeley Street and Thorne Lane as part of the project to imporve traffic flow through the JBLM corridor. The public is invited to attend to hear about the proposed changes, and the department particularly encourages Tillicum and Woodbrook residents and businesses to attend the meeting and share their thoughts.
When: Tuesday, 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Tillicum Community Center, 14916 Washington Ave. SW, Lakewood