JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The federal government has awarded the Washington state Department of Transportation a $15 million grant to improve traffic flow on Interstate 5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The money is part of a larger $34 million plan designed to reduce commute times and improve flow at peak times on the 15.5-mile stretch of I-5 that spans from State Route 510 in Lacey to SR 512 near Puyallup.

The state has labeled the heavily congested corridor known as the JBLM-I-5 commute as the Interstate 5 JBLM Area Congestion Management Project.

Innovative traffic management strategies are planned through variable signage and reduced speed limits, ramp metering, congestion monitoring and High Occupancy Vehicle/express bypass lanes at 12 ramp meters. Improvements at military gate access points and signals at intersections with military gates should also speed traffic flow.

The proposed project controls and redistributes demand, adds capacity and provides real time information to drivers while improving access. Drivers will choose at times between a hard-shoulder driving option and variable lane control. An additional lane will be freed up during peak driving periods to improve capacity in congested corridors.

An Active Traffic Management Strategy sign will advise drivers when hard shoulder running lanes should be used to manage congestion and provide direction on lane usage through interchange areas.

Washington Department of Transportation officials want to install a hardened shoulder on I-5, from the Liberty (Main) Gate on-ramp to Berkeley Avenue.

"Drivers heading from Lewis Main to Madigan (on I-5) could potentially drive on the shoulder for the entire trip," said Ron Landon, WSDOT Olympic Region planning and program manager, to local transportation officials last year.

Signals directing base traffic to underused gates to divert traffic away from I-5 will be installed at various JBLM intersections as well.

"The Interstate 5-JBLM Area Congestion Management Project will make vital improvements to a heavily congested section of I-5. It will make the region more economically competitive by improving a critical freight corridor and it will improve the safety of the traveling public," Congressmen Adam Smith and Norm Dicks said last year in a letter of support to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Delivering improved infrastructure and traffic management to the military members who live at the base and in the surrounding South Sound communities is important to congressional leaders, but Congressman Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) cited safety for freight traffic as one of the most pressing priorities the state can rectify with the TIGER III grant.

"Freight represents up to 15 percent of traffic in this section of I-5 and is the backbone of connectivity to the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle, with global and local economic implications associated with increased freight delay," Inslee's letter to LaHood said.

Pierce and Thurston counties have both exploded in population since 2003, adding both freight and passenger traffic to the region. Pierce County has grown more than 12 percent and nearly 20 percent in Thurston County.

A large percentage of that growth is attributed to the influx of military personnel, their Families and more than 2,000 civilian government employees hired by the Department of Defense, putting more than 150,000 vehicles on the roads that enter and exit JBLM gates each day. JBLM serves as the third largest employer in Washington state.

More than 100,000 retirees live in the Madigan Healthcare System catchment area, adding to the traffic installation's traffic challenges. All of these factors are important reasons to upgrade I-5 around Lewis-McChord, according to Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy.

JBLM Commander Col. Thomas Brittain provided a military-necessity case for the grant, arguing that traffic flow on a major highway is a security concern. He highlighted the Washington Army National Guard Headquarters at Camp Murray, connected to JBLM by an overpass.

"This access is compromised because I-5 is congested during many hours of the day in the project area," Brittain wrote in a letter accompanying the grant request.

Local community efforts to help JBLM, the county's single largest employer, have impressed Brittain.
"We look forward to continued cooperation with our neighbors as we confront shared challenges in our area," he said. "Joint Base Lewis-McChord has worked very closely with local, regional and state agencies to plan improvements to transportation infrastructure around the base."

Lorin T. Smith: