The top shared-legislative agenda this year for Thurston County governments is a major study of Interstate 5 between DuPont and Tumwater.
Getting money for it in 2018 is a long shot, but state lawmakers should prod state transportation planners for a closer look.
Whether it is this year or in 2019, a $5 million study of freeway corridor needs from Tumwater north to Mounts Road on the Pierce County side of the Nisqually River is a logical next step for addressing traffic and freight mobility along the I-5 corridor.
The reason is straight-forward, and the need is going to be amplified soon because the state has finally funded a $494 million megaproject to the north of Mounts Road to relieve heavy congestion along I-5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord. That JBLM bottleneck at times leaves traffic at a standstill, and South Sound leaders are right to fear that the megaproject could gradually push the traffic clot farther south.
Those effects won’t occur overnight. Work in the JBLM area starts in spring 2019. Funding is provided over five biennial budget cycles, according to John Wynands, Olympic Region administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Wynands makes a good case that a bigger-picture look at I-5 needs between Marysville north of Everett and Tumwater at the south end has been needed before his agency started a new round of planning for any single section of that corridor.
To its credit, DOT is building on that work to consider what it calls “intelligent transportation” options. These can move more traffic without necessarily building new lanes and bridges.
For instance, ramp meters can control access to I-5 along the corridor so traffic isn’t suddenly clogged by a surge of cars and trucks. Traffic cams help DOT monitor traffic so drivers and the agency can respond to backups.
Another appealing idea is to look at using the interstate’s “hard shoulder” areas as extra lanes for buses during peak commute times. But it is going to take some time to determine whether there are enough shoulders hard enough to handle the loads and what to do about shoulders that disappear at highway off-ramps.
Still, it is worth the effort to see whether lower-cost ways exist to get transit vehicles out of the rush-hour congestion, giving bus riders a real-time advantage if they use transit. Another emerging concern is at the junction between I-5 and U.S. Highway 101 next to Capitol Lake, according to Thurston Regional Planning Council executive director Marc Daily. TRCP and DOT are sharing costs to carry out a “dynamic traffic” modeling study of that problem area.
The interchange data should help identify changes that improve traffic flow during peak times.
DOT is correct that all of these steps are necessary before seriously embarking on what could amount to another megaproject. It is also important to see the effects of work beginning this summer to reconfigure the I-5 interchange at Marvin Road in Lacey.
Getting a lot of bang for the buck matters enormously with transportation dollars. One back-of-the-envelope calculation by DOT for widening I-5 in the Nisqually Delta area was upward of $1 billion. That included replacement of the bridge over the Nisqually River and elevating portions of I-5 that cross the river delta and estuary zones.
That is why the various strategies DOT is putting into play, along with its $100,000 contribution to the TRCP traffic study at U.S. 101, are small, smart and essential first steps.
The recent Amtrak derailment near DuPont only underscores the importance of having a larger look at I-5. That deadly crash sent train cars off a trestle and blocked I-5 for a couple of days, which forced huge amounts of traffic onto alternative routes built for far less use. The interstate is our state’s main artery for shipping and traffic.
Whether the South Sound sections of the interstate need costly widening or — transit lanes to make transit more effective — remains to be seen.
Whatever the answers our governments need time to adjust their local road planning to accommodate what comes next.
That is why a serious study of the next leg of highway improvements in Thurston County needs to get underway sooner than later. If not this year, then in the 2019-20 budget cycle.
Stalling the work can only stall our traffic and our economy.