Traffic has gone from bad to worse near Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Over the past five months 14,000 soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the base is set to expand by 50% more soldiers by 2016 (from 23,000 to 36,000), bringing the total number of soldiers, civilians, and dependents at JBLM to well over 50,000 people. This Redmond-sized contingent of people mostly reside off-base along a narrowed stretch of I-5 (SR 512 to Nisqually)with no HOV lanes and only skeletal (at best) transit service. Travel demand has increased markedly and tempers are short, prompting nervous press releases from WSDOT announcing “immediate actions” that amount to little more than signal timing improvements. Everyone knew this storm was coming, but the scale of the backups seems to have caught base officials as well as WSDOT off-guard. This may now be the single worst traffic area in Washington State.
Yet soldiers and civilians alike haven’t had many other options, and what is a ‘last mile’ problem elsewhere is a ‘last 5 miles’ problem on base, ringed by mandatory security checks. In short, transit currently has little chance to compete for mode share. (Tacoma Tomorrow blogger Evan Siroky had an excellent post series earlier this year covering many of these same issues.) Over the years, Pierce Transit has worked diligently with base officials to design useful routes with limited resources, yet results have been continually disappointing. Three local routes currently enter the base, #206 (Lakewood-Tillicum-Madigan Hospital), #207 (Madigan Hospital-Ft. Lewis), and #300 (Tacoma Mall-SR512 P&R-McChord Commissary). While #206 and #300 both exceed 1,000 riders per day and meet PT service standards, PT’s planners tell me that very few of those riders actually enter the base. The only intra-base route (#207) is PT’s least-ridden route, averaging only 36 boardings daily for an hourly service.
Longer term, a series of infrastructure investments have been planned for some time, and WSDOT recently released a Transportation Alternatives Analysis that proposes spending over $1B on widening and new ramps for I-5. Transit receives only a cursory mention, and the planners seem to assume that nothing cost-effective can be done to get JBLM to lower its SOV/VMT levels. Given the dismal fiscal situation government faces at all levels, it is clear that capital-intensive projects will be difficult to fund and complete, however badly they are needed. Yet the sheer scale of this problem — cultural, structural, fiscal — prohibits thinking small. What should be done? What should transit advocates push for? To get the conversation going, my initial suggestions are after the jump…
(1. Collect sales tax on the base. Currently sales tax is not collected at the Px and the Commissary. Not only does this hurt neighboring retailers, but it also means on-base purchases don’t contribute to Pierce Transit’s revenues.
(2. Build Transit/HOV lanes all the way to Olympia. Currently Pierce County has no HOV on I-5, except for a short section due to open on October 2nd on northbound I-5 from Port of Tacoma Rd to the King County line.
(3. Olympia-Tacoma Express buses should have flyer stops on I-5. Currently the 600-series express buses make no stops between Lacey and SR 512, directly bypassing both the largest employer along the route and its worst source of congestion. While a stop at DuPont P&R would not be very useful without a base-operated shuttle, I-5 flyer stops at the main gates would incur low capital costs. Beyond the flyer stops, there is significant ridership potential for commuter routes into Madigan, Ft. Lewis, and McChord. Once on base, these could have flexible routing along the main arterials based on demand.
(4. Olympia and Lacey should join Sound Transit. JBLM is already in the Sound Transit district yet they only receive indirect service, a unidirectional commuter route to Seattle that bypasses Tacoma completely (ST 592). Traffic to and from JBLM is a bi-directional, all-day phenomenon, and if anything more demand comes from Lacey and Olympia. Pierce Transit has struggled to provide effective service given JBLM’s location at the fringe of PT’s service area, and Intercity Transit has neither the means nor desire to provide service since the base lies entirely within Pierce County. Having the urbanized areas of Thurston County join the Sound Transit district could facilitate local service, I-5 limited-stop service, expansion of the present 600-series express, and perhaps super-express buses (Olympia-Tacoma-Seattle only). For the base, limited-stop service would be the most useful, with service levels and stop spacing analogous to ST 574.
(5. Once the Point Defiance Bypass is complete, Sounder should be extended by two further stations (41st Division Drive and DuPont), and additional reverse trips should be added. The bypass should be seen not only as a benefit for Amtrak, but also as a major business opportunity to get people onto trains from the JBLM corridor. Expediting a Sounder extension to DuPont makes alot of sense, as would a Cascades stop. Despite the need for new ROW, eventually we need all-day, bi-directional Sounder service to Lacey and Olympia. Effective commuter rail should naturally mature into interurban service over time. Of course, it would help if Lakewood and DuPont didn’t vehemently oppose the bypass, recently winning a two-year delay.
(6. Work to change the culture in which a soldier returning from deployment buys a car immediately. Travel down South Tacoma Way and you will be greeted by large auto lots full of soldiers, framed by banners proclaiming, “Financing for Soldiers…E1 and Up!” Sources at JBLM tell me that most returning soldiers buy a new car within a month of arrival, and many of the poorer soldiers are taken advantage of by accepting poor credit terms.
(7. More bike lanes and bike parking. Lewis-McChord is spread out, mostly flat, and has thousands of young women and men who are required to stay in good physical shape. It is a good location for additional bicycle facilities, especially if intra-base transit is not feasible in the near term. The current bike lanes on Jackson and Pendleton Avenues are readily usable, but few seem to notice.
(8. JBLM must contribute financially to mitigation efforts. Though executive orders from Presidents Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama all require reduced CO2 emissions from transportation in the armed forces and the implementation of Environmental Management Systems via ISO 14001 standards, employee transportation has been neglected in the targets for reduced emissions, and thus no funding is available for transportation services not directly related to combat and fleet vehicles. The result is that JBLM expects, with legal justification, the state to pick up the tab for improvements. The legal framework must be shifted in such a way that the Department of Defense is permitted to contribute to a broader range of infrastructure improvements.
*Disclaimer…the author is jointly employed by Pierce Transit, the City of Tacoma, and Pierce County (grant funded) to reduce single-occupancy commuting at the Port of Tacoma and Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Any opinions expressed are solely his own.*