Getting stuck in traffic sucks. Being blockaded in a sea of cars with no way of escape makes your pulse quicken and your blood pressure rise. You search frantically for the next exit off the highway. But if you are a civilian stuck on the stretch of Interstate 5 that runs parallel to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the exits to the base are a dead end.
Of course, you may be a local who knows the one back route that offers escape from I-5 gridlock. Exiting at Thorne Lane provides access to Perimeter Road, a back route to Spanaway Loop Road. You travel down side roads through American Gardens past Brooklane Stables and the Woodbrook Hunt Club before you finally emerge on the only two-lane road that crosses the base. It will still be slow going when you reach the loop, but at least you’re moving.
Commuters on the I-5 corridor though JBLM experience traffic backups daily during peak commute hours. If an accident occurs, a commute from Olympia to Tacoma can take hours. This past Memorial Day weekend, Pierce County residents embarking on their holiday excursions encountered a huge backup on southbound I-5 and westbound state Route 512 due to a car fire. It was only noon.
The Cross-Base Highway Project has been delayed too long. Studies conducted in the late 1990s demonstrated the need for state Route 704 due to expected population growth in Pierce County. Residents living in the huge housing developments in rural Graham, Roy and Orting need better access to the jobs in Frederickson, DuPont and Lakewood. Funding for this project needs to be a priority.
Mid county growth has created employment, sprawl and traffic. The Washington State Department of Transportation study conducted in 2004 shows that by 2025, state Routes 512, 507, 7 and 161 will be choked with even more traffic. They are already over capacity during commute times.
JBLM Regional Coordination, a South Sound military and community partnership, acknowledges the heavy toll the traffic from the base puts on our overcrowded highway infrastructure. More than 150,000 vehicles travel through the military installation daily. Projections indicate that number will increase by 30,000 per day in the next decade. In addition to I-5 improvements, the partnership recommends completing the cross-base highway.
No discussion of the project would be complete without mentioning the environmental groups that have stalled construction from moving forward. According to conservationnw.org , JBLM is home to one of the last oak-woodland prairies. Several species living there are threatened or endangered. If we build state Route 704, we would say goodbye to the Mazama pocket gopher, western gray squirrel and water howellia. The streaked horned lark and Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly may not survive either. I love animals, but I’m sure the developers who buy large plots of farmland in Pierce County to build huge developments displace a few gophers, too.
According to the WSDOT report, the impact on the American Gardens community and the nearby horse stable and hunt club would be minimal. Playfields at Woodbrook Middle School can be relocated.
The Puget Sound Regional Council Transportation 2040 plan doesn’t offer much hope that the project will move forward in the next 25 years. It was defined as “unprogrammed” in the April 2014 recommended plan. The financial strategy does not include investment in the project. The WSDOT projected a $410 million price tag in 2012. Currently the project is suspended awaiting funding.
Residents who live in areas of Pierce and Thurston counties affected by the traffic on the feeder roads that clog during commute hours want the cross-base highway to move forward. Residents along Spanaway Loop Road have posted signs that leave no doubt they support the highway project: “Build it already. They are here”
Joyce Moore, a lifelong Tacoma-area resident, is a former restaurant manager and recent graduate of the University of Washington Tacoma with a degree in communications. She lives in Spanaway with her youngest son, two dogs and a very pampered cat.