Yes, road projects near Joint Base Lewis-McChord and between Puyallup and the Port of Tacoma are still just gleams in Pierce County’s eyes.
And no, there’s no money even identified to pay for them.
Still, a recent recommendation by the Washington State Department of Transportation is notable as a sign of the projects that state officials think might find funding.
The department wants to widen congested Interstate 5 to a fourth lane each way through Lewis-McChord and is asking local elected officials to add that concept to their long-term transportation plan.
Putting it in the plan helps with applying for federal money, which won’t happen until years of state-funded study are complete.
“I think relief is going to be on the way. It just won’t happen overnight, for sure,” Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said.
At the same time, Department of Transportation advises the plan should scale back a long-sought extension of state Route 167 between Puyallup and the Port to a single lane in each direction. Highway officials figure the project will have to be done in phases.
A group of elected officials, who make up a committee under the Puget Sound Regional Council, on April 12 approved WSDOT’s recommendations for amending the 30-year plan. The council’s executive board could sign off Thursday, sending the recommendations to a vote of the council’s full assembly of elected officials.
The main voices against the changes are environmentalists, who fret that officials are trying to build pieces of a proposed cross-base highway under the guise of reducing congestion on I-5.
Seattle environmental lawyer David Bricklin called the plan a “Trojan horse.”
Worries also come from those whose priority is finishing state Route 167 to help trucks hauling freight between the port and points east. The amendment would reduce that project’s share by $1 billion to allow the base projects to fit within the plan.
Tacoma City Councilman Jake Fey, for one, said he’s concerned.
The megaproject’s cost has been estimated at roughly $1.9 billion.
In 2010, as thousands of soldiers returned from deployments, a study drew attention to the six-lane freeway bottleneck near Lewis-McChord. The study pegged the cost of upgrades and extra lanes at up to $1.1 billion.
“We’re talking 40 years without lane additions, and the region’s grown since then,” said Dan Penrose, project manager for the South Sound Military and Communities Partnership.
Recent federal and state money is allowing studies and short-term improvements such as allowing commuters to drive on widened I-5 shoulders.
Last month the Legislature provided $7 million, mostly from new fees on drivers, to study I-5’s intersections with Thorne Lane, 41st Division Drive, Berkeley Street and DuPont-Steilacoom Road in Pierce County, plus Marvin Road and Martin Way in Thurston County.
That planning and environmental work is a precursor to applying for federal grants to improve the interchanges and extend bridges to allow for widening a 7-mile stretch of I-5 from Mounts Road to Thorne Lane. The plan also would connect Thorne Lane in Tillicum with Gravelly Lake Drive.
On the council’s project list, the new lanes are listed as carpool (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes or tolled (high-occupancy toll) lanes. Ron Landon, regional program manager for the WSDOT, said a decision has not been made, and regular traffic lanes are still possible.
All told, the amended plan estimates the Pierce County work at nearly $800 million. That doesn’t count another $600 million worth of proposed work north of the base at I-5 and state Route 512 to make way for carpool lanes that WSDOT hopes to eventually run through Lakewood.
Then there’s the work in Lacey, which Penrose said could cost several hundred million dollars more.
Any talk about laying pavement near the base will revive an old debate over a cross-base highway.
County officials see the proposed highway as a way to reduce congestion and get freight to the Frederickson industrial area. Environmentalists say it would destroy rare oak prairie and encourage sprawl.
With no funding for the highway, a lawsuit by environmentalists is on hold in federal court. But Bricklin said they could renew their push if local officials try to widen ramps at Thorne Lane, which would dovetail with improvements needed for the western end of the proposed cross-base highway.
Landon said the ramps would be widened simply because they’re too narrow.
“This effort is only geared toward expanding I-5,” he said.
State transportation officials have said for a while that one option to extend Route 167 to the port from where it dead-ends near Puyallup is a slimmed-down version with two lanes. They could be widened to four in a future phase.
Now they call for that strategy to be part of the official long-term plan.
“It sure beats having nothing,” said Landon, who said it appears the state can’t fund the full project with conventional sources or tolling.
Port officials don’t rule it out, saying their top priority is at least getting the whole extension built in some form.
Questions remain about how to raise even the smaller sum of $900 million, Landon said. It doesn’t have the same military ties that might shake loose federal money near Lewis-McChord.
A study of possible tolling options is ongoing, but the Department of Transportation reported last year that tolls couldn’t be expected to cover more than roughly $200 million of the cost, if that.
That likely leaves Route 167 dependent on Congress or the Legislature for more conventional sources of money.
A state task force convened by Gov. Chris Gregoire concluded $21 billion is needed over a decade for Washington road projects and other transportation needs. This year’s user fees were tiny by comparison.
Lawmakers postponed any request to voters until at least 2013.