Emotions run high over state’s plans to rebuild I-5 overpasses in Tillicum

Tillicum residents, getting their first close look at a massive Interstate 5 traffic improvement plan this week, were skeptical and often emotional about the impacts that are coming to their isolated south Lakewood neighborhood.

Reaction was mixed but vehement at times Tuesday night during a standing-room-only meeting of roughly 150 people who were learning more about the state’s plans to tear down and rebuild two bridges that connect Tillicum with the rest of the South Sound.

“I think it’s a pretty bold design,” said Tony Gibbons, who owns the Chevron gas station at the corner of Berkeley Street and Union Avenue.

His station is across the street from Camp Murray and situated at one of the neighborhood’s busiest intersections. Cars exiting I-5 use the intersection to access Camp Murray and Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Also at the intersection are railroad tracks that will soon carry high-speed passenger trains at close to 80 mph as part of the Point Defiance Bypass project.

“What we have now doesn’t work, and with Amtrak coming through it’s going to get worse,” Gibbons said. “We have to do something.”

The Legislature this year earmarked $494 million for I-5 improvements along the JBLM corridor. The money comes from an 11.9-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax.

Improvements include rebuilding the two overpasses in Tillicum and adding a residential road to connect the neighborhood to the rest of Lakewood. The road would run between the Tacoma Golf and Country Club and the railroad tracks that parallel I-5.

Built in 1954, the bridges connecting Tillicum to Woodbrook and JBLM are outdated and will be torn down.

New bridges will be built just south of the existing structures. A large-scale roundabout will stretch across the overpasses, allowing for the regular flow of traffic.

People had minimal reaction to the removal of the Thorne Lane bridge.

Plans for the Berkeley Street interchange, however, generated strong emotions.

The state Department of Transportation plans to build an elevated 30-foot ramp to clear the railroad tracks and entrance to Camp Murray. To accommodate the height, the ramp would be extended and connected to Washington Avenue where it intersects Berkeley Street.

The state will have to buy three homes to make room for the ramp. It also will need to work with the owner of two apartment buildings at the corner of Washington and Berkeley.

“There will be no impact to the apartment buildings, but it will impact the ability to park and back out as you do today,” said Bill Elliott, state transportation engineer.

That didn’t sit well with some at the meeting.

“I can’t get out of my property now,” yelled a man who said he lives near Camp Murray and Berkeley. “You do this and I’m not going to be able to get out 12 hours a day.”

Some in the audience cited concerns about declining property values if an off-ramp runs through their yard. Others are worried that drivers will choose residential Washington Avenue over the commercial drag of Union Avenue, putting pedestrians and children at risk.

Merchants on Union Avenue worried about a loss of business.

At the other end of Tillicum, property owners whose homes border the Tacoma Golf and Country Club were worried about the proposed connector road. It would allow people from Tillicum and Woodbrook access into the rest of Lakewood without using the freeway.

Most residents said they want to see the road built. But a handful of residents whose homes are in the road’s path aren’t happy.

Two homeowners whose property would be bisected by the road declined comment, saying they want to consult a lawyer first.

State transportation officials said they don’t know when plans will be finalized for the connector road.