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Public contributes traffic ideas at JBLM, WSDOT event

Interim results of I-5 congestion relief study on display during recent JBLM open house

Northwest Guardian

Published: 05:55PM June 19th, 2014

It never fails during morning and evening rush hours — stop-and-go traffic gets heavy on Interstate 5 in areas adjacent to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

A number of factors contribute to the workday slowdowns, including truck traffic increasing on the route, the highway narrowing by a lane as it passes by the base and commuters arriving at gates in bunches. Drivers push on their brake pedals until everything finally clears. Seeing no apparent reasons for slow speeds can be the most frustrating part, the Washington Department of Transportation says.

That’s why WSDOT and partners from the Federal Highway Administration and JBLM, are working on a multi-year study of JBLM I-5 congestion between Exit 127 at SR 512 and South Tacoma Way and Exit 116 at Mounts Road.

The in-progress results of “I-5 JBLM Vicinity Congestion Relief Study” were on display for public scrutiny and comment June 12 during an open house and orientation at Eagles Pride Golf Course.

The open house featured 13 topics, each with its own display. Project staff members manned the displays to decipher the diagrams in detail for visitors.

Though the study continues, the displays were comprehensive, from reasons for 1-5 congestion to WSDOT’s tactics and strategies for the future.

The department isn’t waiting for completion of the study to take action. WSDOT is installing ramp meters and adding auxiliary lanes between Thorne Lane and Berkeley Street, emplacing cameras to monitor traffic and stationing electronic signs at key points to advise drivers of changing traffic conditions.

Although the interim changes were not controversial, some topic areas attracted crowds to discuss large-scale options that will have to approved after study and debate.

“We are looking for the best benefit with the least impact,” said Dean W. Moberg, a project engineer. “Before making any huge changes we are looking at what we can do off, and on the I-5 to make the program smaller.”

That’s why the open house encouraged public feedback on comment sheets and a white board where people shared ideas. Some attendees suggested that WSDOT redesign the on and off ramps at popular exits, like Exit 120, the Liberty (Lewis Main) and Lewis North gates.

In this case, all traffic for Liberty Gate would use the Lewis Main side, with an on-base overpass for Lewis North traffic. This would eliminate the requirement to go through gates, thereby speeding the flow of traffic.

An expensive suggestion was to widen I-5 with additional lanes in front of the base, suggesting HOV, trucks-only, pay lanes/”hot” lanes or separated “thru” lanes.

The data collected during the study will focus decision makers and help them understand the primary factors in traffic slowdowns. They will also take public sentiment into account, collected at the open house and similar venues. One statistic that surprised attendees revealed 50 percent of all I-5 traffic along JBLM is “through traffic.” Meaning half the cars on the often-crowded stretch of highway from Lakewood/Tacoma through DuPont don’t exit at all.

Based on this data, WSDOT is considering the feasibility of separating through traffic from exiting traffic — one option among many being considered. The ultimate outcome will be a combination of ideas.

“We had 172 ideas to start, we will now screen and funnel these ideas and out of the funnel will come the options that are the best,” said Perry Shea, a project manager with SCJ Alliance.

Though some interim actions have already been taken, no major decisions will be made until the study is complete.

Once WSDOT determines its top options, the crucial environmental study will be done.

“Just rebuilding everything got us (law) suits in the past,” Moberg said. “They would say you can’t just go through neighborhoods, no you can’t go though that cemetery, no you can’t go through that protected area. Now we do careful planning to come to a final decision with the least impact.”

Concerned citizens came to the open house to make sure of this.

“Anything with the cross-base freeway will be a firestorm, because of the environmental impact,” said Melody Fleckenstein, who said she was involved in a lawsuit over the matter. “But they’ve done a terrific job getting input from lots of different agencies.”

WSDOT is holding another open house in October to present new findings. Fleckenstein said she definitely plans to attend.

In the mean time, project staff encourage citizens to post suggestions online at wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/I5/JBLMImprovements/FuturePlans.

“We are looking for ideas that we don’t have yet,” Moberg said. “If you’ve got them, we are willing to listen.”