Traffic relief on I-5 through JBLM could come as soon as 2020

Drivers using Interstate 5 around Joint Base Lewis-McChord could see traffic relief by 2020, according to state transportation officials who say they have a solution to reduce congestion that has plagued the area for years.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Transportation released its latest plans to improve a four-mile stretch of I-5 from Thorne Lane in Lakewood to Steilacoom-DuPont Road in DuPont.

But the improvements are estimated to cost $450 million and would likely hinge on state lawmakers agreeing on a transportation funding package that has eluded them for years.

“Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I want to be optimistic that there is,” said Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield.

The improvements would add a high occupancy vehicle lane in each direction between exits 123 (Thorne Lane) and 119 (Steilacoom-DuPont Road). This would widen the freeway to four lanes in each direction from its current three-lane configuration. Right now there is no HOV lane along this stretch.

The two freeway interchanges would be completely rebuilt, and Lakewood’s Berkeley Avenue Southwest interchange also would see major improvements.

All three interchanges would be rebuilt to cross railroad tracks. Drivers near these interchanges now have to wait for trains to pass, causing backups onto the freeway and local roads.

Elevating vehicle traffic over the train tracks is a key to reducing congestion at Steilacoom-DuPont Road, where drivers often get stuck in mile-long backups during rush hour, said DuPont City Administrator Ted Danek.

When trains come through, it’s even worse, he said.

Design of the interchanges will be done during an environmental assessment and through a required interchange justification report that state transportation officials must complete to receive funding. Officials expect that to be done by July 2016.

If that timeline is met, it is realistic to expect the improvements — including the reconfigured interchanges — would be done by 2020, said Bill Elliott, WSDOT Olympic Region coordinator.

All of this assumes that state funding will be available.

This is the third year in a row that legislative leaders will try to approve a transportation funding package. Disagreement over how to generate the new revenue has prevented it from passing both chambers.

Prior packages have proposed raising the state gas tax by up to 12 cents per gallon. Washington’s gas tax was last increased in 2005.

A package presented during last year’s legislative session earmarked $350 million for the JBLM I-5 corridor improvements.

Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed an alternative transportation funding option using a carbon pollution tax. It would generate an additional $400 million a year for transportation.

Inslee’s total transportation proposal includes $278 million for JBLM-area road improvements.

Lakewood’s Caulfield said he will continue to encourage Pierce County legislators to approve a transportation package that would fully fund the $450 million project. He encouraged taxpayers to call and email lawmakers to urge them to find a solution.

The improvements announced Tuesday are the first step in a long-term transportation plan that would continue work on I-5 near JBLM into the year 2040. Improvements are also being made on base to reduce congestion on the freeway.

Long-range plans call for express lanes or some other managed lanes of traffic, to allow cars to drive through the corridor toward Tacoma or Olympia without being caught up in local traffic entering and exiting the freeway near the base.

A recent traffic study showed 50 percent of traffic does not exit along the corridor. Adding dedicated lanes for those travelers would reduce congestion, state officials said.

The state would also like to see improvements to interchanges at the JBLM main gate exit, and possibly at Center Drive in DuPont and Gravelly Lake Drive in Lakewood.