Pierce County's road to the US Open: It could be nicer

The U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in University Place is still 21 months away, but time is running out to transform a major route to the golf course into a more scenic gateway.

Since 2009, there’s been talk of improving South 56th Street through Tacoma and Cirque Drive West through University Place for access to the golf championship.

The wish list: Adding sidewalks and bicycle lanes; putting in medians, trees and more street lights; and resurfacing stretches of the 5-mile corridor from Interstate 5.

The problem: Finding grant money for up to $15 million in upgrades.

“It would be very tight, but it’s not at the impossible stage,” said University Place City Council member Eric Choiniere, who has pushed for the improvements. “I will never say never.”

The road work wouldn’t increase vehicle capacity on the corridor.

University Place and Tacoma together have received $778,500 in Federal Highway Administration grant money to design the project. They got the go-ahead Thursday to start design work, which could take up to a year, said University Place city engineer Jack Ecklund.

That doesn’t leave much time to make the improvements before the golf tournament, even if the two cities find funding quickly.

The United States Golf Association is planning on total attendance of 235,000 for the U.S. Open June 15-21, 2015, including three practice days. It will mark the first time the U.S. Open, one of professional golf’s four major championships, has been held in the Northwest.

“All of us want to have University Place looking its best,” Choiniere said. “We have said from the start we will be ready in 2015 when the U.S. Open comes.”

Ecklund said the two cities are looking for but haven’t identified a federal or state grant to carry out the work in time for the big event. Design and construction potentially could be ramped up on a shorter-than-usual timeline, he said.

Tacoma officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

Even if the project doesn’t get done until after the U.S. Open, Ecklund said it still would bring major benefits for University Place, Tacoma and Chambers Bay and for potential future U.S. Opens.

Choiniere initiated the partnership between the two cities to upgrade the corridor.

“We wanted to show the USGA that we not only care about this event,” Choiniere said. “We want them to come back again and again.”

The dream of reshaping the corridor dates back to late 2009 when then-Tacoma City Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg asked what it would take to spruce up the route. The price tag then was $11.4 million.

Whether the work gets done isn’t a pressing issue for the USGA, which is putting on the tournament.

“We haven’t asked for any improvements,” said Danny Sink, the USGA’s on-site championship director. “There’s no one in our organization that is unhappy with the road system.”

The South 56th-Cirque Drive corridor became the focus for changes when the cities examined ways to enhance routes to Chambers Bay, Ecklund said.

“It’s the one that makes the most sense,” he said. “It is still the most direct route to Chambers Bay.”

The route varies in width from five to two lanes. Portions of Cirque don’t have sidewalks. Most of the pavement overlay would be on South 56th.

Ecklund said he hasn’t given up on getting the project completed in time for the U.S. Open.

“It’s getting very tight,” he said. “It’s still a possibility.”