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Traffic around JBLM affects city streets, not just Interstate-5, Lakewood leaders say

When traffic is discussed in the South Sound, attention typically shifts to the stretch of Interstate 5 that borders Joint Base Lewis-McChord at the city of Lakewood and stretches south to Olympia.

That stretch of freeway is the focus of a state Department of Transportation study that’s looking to alleviate bottlenecks by expanding on and off ramps and adding dedicated distributor lanes to move cars to and from the military base.

But city of Lakewood leaders say growth in the region, including on base, is hurting more than just the freeway. Drivers bypass backups on I-5 by cutting through the city’s arterial roadways.

That’s causing additional wear on streets originally paved by Pierce County before Lakewood incorporated as a city in 1996. The once rural roads aren’t equipped to handle the heavy urban traffic they get today, said Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield.

“We appreciate the growth on JBLM, but at the same time it causes wear and tear on the streets,” Caulfield said.

On Tuesday, Caulfield and the city’s Public Works Director Don Wickstrom took a school bus filled with elected officials, military leaders and state transportation officials to four intersections in the city that see the most impact from cars trying to avoid I-5 backups during peak commute times.

The purpose was to show U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, how ill-equipped the city’s roads are to handle the growth that has come in the last decade.

Heck has introduced a bill called the COMMUTE Act aimed at helping military communities like Lakewood that are struggling to keep up with road maintenance because of proximity to a base. If approved, the act would create a competitive federal grant program to fund transportation infrastructure improvements.

Lakewood, like other South Sound communities, is limited in how much it can do to improve traffic, Mayor Don Anderson said. The city continues to work with JBLM and state officials to discuss traffic improvements, but without a state Legislature-approved transportation package, the city will continue to look at other ways to address the problems, Anderson said.

Heck’s bill is one way to get that done, he said.

“It’s a quality of life issue, economic development issue and a military readiness concern,” Anderson said.

According to Lakewood statistics, traffic has more than doubled in the last decade at two of the city’s most heavily traveled intersections near the north end of JBLM.

North Gate Road SW, a residential street lined with single-family homes and four-way stops, has seen traffic increase from 3,800 average daily trips in 2003 to 5,900 average trips in 2013. The numbers are similar for the city’s Edgewood Avenue SW, another residential arterial that doesn’t have sidewalks or dedicated bicycle lanes.

The city is looking to the COMMUTE Act to help pay for improvements such as sidewalks, curbs and gutters, street lighting and bicycle lanes. The city estimates it costs $6 million a mile to build a new road with these improvements.

The Lakewood City Council is currently discussing how to pay for road maintenance, including implementing a $20 vehicle tab renewal fee and asking voters to approve a levy increase. An amount has not been finalized.

Having one more funding option in the form of the COMMUTE Act would help, city leaders said Tuesday.

“The act and the money associated with it will work well for Lakewood to make preservation improvements to its arterial roads affected by growth and also I-5 traffic,” Caulfield said.

While Heck’s bill focuses on helping military communities, the congressman was quick to point out Tuesday that JBLM shouldn’t be blamed for traffic in the region. Overall traffic in the South Sound region has increased significantly in the last decade, he said.

Kevin Dayton, state Department of Transportation Olympic region administrator, also noted a solution won’t happen overnight.

“It took 30 years to get here, it will take some time to get it fixed,” Dayton said.

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