Politics & Government

Traffic study on Tacoma’s Tideflats could shape emergency response patterns

As traffic by land and sea increases at the Port of Tacoma, it’s becoming more difficult to get fire trucks and ambulances there quickly, city officials say.

Now the city of Tacoma, port and others are spending $600,000 to examine traffic patterns and emergency response on the Tideflats, partly in hopes of getting new businesses that could add to the gridlock to contribute toward fixing it.

The study also will suggest ways to implement a high-tech system to manage the traffic and help route emergency crews around obstructions. Fire and ambulance crews often don’t know when trains or heavy traffic will block their paths on the Tideflats until they see them, said Michael Fitzgerald, assistant to Tacoma’s fire chief.

“As that area continues to develop, emergency response into and out of the Tideflats is becoming more and more difficult,” Fitzgerald said. “The Fire Department has become very concerned.”

There is “accelerated interest” for this study because of two proposals for gas plants on the Tideflats, said Ian Munce, special assistant to the director of Tacoma’s Planning and Development Services Department.

Earlier this year, the Port of Tacoma’s board approved a 30-year lease for a $1.8 billion natural gas-to-methanol plant by Northwest Innovation Works, slated for a 2019 opening.

Also in the works: Puget Sound Energy’s liquid natural gas fueling station, projected to open in 2018. It would be the first in the state and would allow ships in Puget Sound to fuel up on less expensive and cleaner-burning natural gas.

The projects come at a time when a combination of heavier truck and rail traffic, bridge closures and lower staffing at the Fire Department have contributed to increased response times, said Joe Meinecke, spokesman for the Fire Department. Response times increased by nearly a full minute over five years, from 9 minutes and 16 seconds in 2009 to 10 minutes and 14 seconds in 2013.

The Tideflats study is an extension of the city’s first transportation master plan, which is assessing Tacoma’s road, transit, bicycle and pedestrian traffic needs over the next 20 years. That study alone is $500,000.

Several governments and companies are splitting the bill for the extra $600,000 of work to zero in on the Tideflats area. Tacoma’s Planning and Development Services Department will pay $200,000, the Port of Tacoma $75,000, Puget Sound Energy $75,000, the Puyallup Tribe $75,000, the Tacoma Fire Department $50,000, Tacoma Rail $50,000, and U.S. Oil and Targa Sound Terminal $37,500 each.

When the study is complete at the end of the year, it will help the city and port decide what elements are needed in what’s called an intelligent transportation system, which monitors train, container and road traffic with a computer system. Munce said the study will also suggest how to pay for the system.

“One thing that is clear is how useful an intelligent transportation system would be to manage the whole road network on the Tideflats,” Munce said. “Technology is being used more and more across the region.”

One example of such a system locally is Interstate 5 headed into Seattle, where lanes of the interstate have varying speed limits and can warn of crashes ahead. Munce said the state has plans to install an intelligent transportation system on state Route 509, although the money to do the work has not been identified.

An intelligent transportation system here could direct vehicles down lower-traffic roads, route traffic around stopped trains or it could route all traffic out of the area if an explosion or tsunami were to occur.

It could also change traffic signals to ease congestion and speed crews’ response to an emergency on the Tideflats.

The study will also tell the city whether it should add a fire station back to the Tideflats area. The Tideflats fire station was closed in 2013 after $11 million in budget cuts to the department.

Fire stations that ring the Tideflats in Tacoma and Fife now respond to emergencies there.

Once the study is complete, the city can determine what share new developments in the Tideflats would have to pay to implement the study’s recommendations, Munce said.