South End residents want WSDOT to plant more trees to replace those lost to road work

Living next to Interstate 5 is noisy, dusty and windy — just ask members of Tacoma’s South End.

Some are leading the charge to get more trees planted along the freeway to mitigate impacts in front of neighborhoods and schools like Jennie Reed Elementary and Lincoln High School.

They say it’s the responsibility of the state Department of Transportation, whose various projects over 20 years removed stands of trees that served as a buffer from noise and exhaust. Those trees haven’t been replanted in the same places, some South End residents said.

“For many reasons, my community feels outraged that WSDOT does not plan to mitigate the trees that have been removed during their construction over the last two decades,” said South End resident Ricky Clousing.

Residents are gaining the attention of local leadership, including City Council member Catherine Ushka and state Rep. Jake Fey, who also serves on the state’s Transportation Committee.

WSDOT is nearing completion of its $1.4 billion I-5 — SR 16 Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program, which constructed HOV lanes on I-5 and Route 16 in Pierce County over the last 18 years. The program also identifies future HOV lanes on state Route 167.

The last two projects in the Tacoma area span the I-5 and Route 16 interchange and southbound I-5 from Port of Tacoma Road to Portland Avenue.

Landscaping is typically one of the last to-do items on a transportation project, according to WSDOT spokesman Cara Mitchell. Each project has a landscaping plan, but they’re not always used if the contractor leaves trees in place.

“There were no trees removed from the current I-5/SR 16 HOV Connections project that is getting ready to wrap up,” Mitchell said.

Other projects have required the removal of trees along I-5 over the past 20 years, she said.

DOT’s policy for replacing trees is through the Roadside Policy Manual, which requires “an equal value exchange when mitigation is necessary.”

“The mitigation rate is based on the diameter of the healthy trees being removed, such as 14-inch diameter tree would be 14 one-gallon trees or seven two-gallon trees,” Mitchell said in an email.

Missing trees

Clousing started looking into WSDOT’s landscape plan several years ago after helping plant trees at Jennie Reed in 2017. Clousing is a development specialist for the City of Tacoma, but his advocacy for the WSDOT project is strictly as a South End resident.

He said that hundreds of evergreen trees have been removed since the WSDOT project began in 2001, leaving “a scar” on the community.

“Just outside the footprint of this WSDOT project is Jennie Reed Elementary, Giaudrone Middle School, and Lincoln High School — three schools that are located directly adjacent to the I-5 corridor and especially impacted by noise and air pollution,” Clousing said.

Clousing pointed out that the South End has a history of health disparities compared to other parts of Tacoma. A Washington State Department of Health map shows high levels of diesel emissions and other health risks in the South End compared to northern areas of Tacoma.

A landscape plan for the I-5 and SR-16 Connections project obtained by The News Tribune shows various changes in the number of trees designated to plant. Ultimately, 435 trees were planted in the interchange of I-5 and Route 16 this year, Mitchell said.

As WSDOT moves into the last parts of the HOV project, which extends Southbound HOV lanes from Port of Tacoma Road to Portland Avenue, the department is looking at expanding its landscape plan.

“We are looking at adding additional trees,” Mitchell said. “We want to be good partners and stewards with our neighbors. If there is a concern there, this is the right time to have those conversations.”

Clousing spearheaded meetings with community groups, WSDOT and local officials to increase the number of trees planted between residential areas and the highway.

Athena Brewer, chair of the South End Neighborhood Council, said the lack of trees in WSDOT’s landscaping plans was a concern shared by all members of the board.

“Adding more trees to replace the ones torn out for construction would serve as a natural barrier for safety, noise reduction, and just general aesthetic purposes for the South End and schools along the I-5 corridor. We hope WSDOT will do the right thing for the South End community,” Brewer said in an email.

Council member Ushka, who represents the South End in District 4, told The News Tribune she supports the community’s effort.

The loss of natural buffers “leaves us with sound and air concerns that weren’t there when there were trees,” she said. “In talking with Rep. Fey, I think we’re both in favor of finding a solution.”

Clousing met with Fey and WSDOT officials in a meeting on Sept. 6. While discussions are underway, nothing has been finalized.

“They seem committed to increasing tree canopy throughout the project footprint,” Clousing said.

Jennie Reed

Currently, there’s no plan to plant trees in front of Jennie Reed, where less than 20 years ago a group of evergreen trees stood, according to aerial views of the site over the years.

Principal Abby Sloan has a vision: In the next few decades, volunteer-planted trees lining the field at the school grown high enough to obscure the bustling freeway behind it or at least mitigate some of its impacts.

Sloan is well aware of the noise pollution and air quality concerns at the school.

“It doesn’t feel calm. You need a calm brain to learn,” Sloan said. “So the noise here — and the dust, of course. The dust is terrible. Our filters need to be changed on a more regular basis.”

In 2017, Tacoma Public Schools, the city of Tacoma and various service groups planted 70 trees around Jennie Reed’s campus.

They hope WSDOT will follow their lead.

“That’s one more person coming to say I care about your voice so important to us,” Sloan said.