Time to speak your mind about improving I-5 traffic

When it flows freely, Interstate 5 is a marvel of movement for commercial and personal transportation as it bisects Thurston County. The federal freeway is the West Coast’s major conduit between California, Oregon and Washington, and a vital connection for us between Lewis and Pierce counties.

But the highway’s gridlock stifles progress. Our Legislature has abdicated its responsibility to finance transportation infrastructure, including replacing or updating obsolete and potentially dangerous bridges.

Lawmakers have had several opportunities to move forward on a statewide transportation revenue package during their past two sessions, and ran out of gas both times.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord helps drive our regional economy, but it also causes extensive traffic challenges along an important stretch of I-5 between Olympia and Tacoma. Thurston County and city officials have worked with federal agencies to identify possible solutions to the daily congestion, but ultimately the state Department of Transportation will need durable funding for a viable regional solution.

Citizens have an opportunity to weigh in on regional transportation options Wednesday, June 11, at the Eagles Pride JBLM Golf Course, just off Exit 116 for Mounts Road. State DOT staff, as well as representatives from regional transportation planning organizations and the Federal Highway Administration, will be on hand to hear ideas and observations.

Now is the time to brainstorm about possibilities. Some folks are asking: Do we have too many interchanges between Lacey and Tacoma? Can we reconfigure ramps and overpasses more efficiently? Are taxpayers willing to increase the state gas tax to help fund solutions for these traffic chokepoints?

Let’s build on the recent federal legislative success of U.S. Rep. Denny Heck’s Creating Opportunities for Military Members to Use Transportation Efficiently (COMMUTE) Act that would permit the Department of Defense to shift some military funding to non-DOD entities, such as state and local governments and transit agencies, to improve access roads around DOD installations such as JBLM.

Heck's bill would expand the variety of improvements DOD could help finance to include ramps, overpasses and mass transit.

The bill authorizes the DOD to award $200 million in grants the first year and another $100 million per year for the next four years. It would require local, non-DOD entities to contribute at least a 20 percent share, creating valuable military-civilian partnerships.

Adequate transportation infrastructure requires thoughtful planning and investment. Instead of merely griping about the traffic jam between Olympia and Tacoma, which occurs like clockwork every morning and afternoon, let’s provide ideas for the Legislature to alleviate congestion and grow our local economy.

State legislators won’t act on a statewide transportation plan until after this fall’s general election, and federal funding for access road improvements won’t become available until Congress passes Heck’s COMMUTE measure. Still, the public has a unique opportunity next week to help determine what is needed to keep I-5 moving.

Let’s not waste it.