New plan to ease traffic around JBLM? 'Anywhere you go, it's backed up'

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD -- At a moment's notice, Interstate 5 traffic near this military base can slow to a crawl or come to a standstill.

Deborah Blue does everything she can to avoid driving along I-5 near JBLM.

"I try not to get on the freeway, but it doesn’t matter," Blue said Tuesday. "Anywhere you go, it’s going to be backed up."

The population at JBLM has doubled in the past seven years, creating even more gridlock on I-5 all along the base.

"It may be the toughest choke-point on I-5 anywhere between Vancouver, B.C., and Tijuana, Mexico," said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., who is trying to find solutions to the gridlock. "It is beyond bad."

On Tuesday, Heck and other local leaders jumped on a school bus to learn about some of the problem areas causing the backups. Those include outdated interchanges that need to be expanded or even eliminated.

The base is also considering opening up more gates to get cars off I-5 sooner.

"We’re always looking for way where we can pull traffic off I-5 as early as possible," said Army Col. H. Charles Hodges, the base commander. "Get the traffic on to our roads."

It could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make some of those fixes, but Heck said there will be money to pay for it if his new bill is passed by Congress.  It would provide funding for traffic improvements at JBLM and other military bases around the country.

"The goal here is to enable people to get their foot off the brake and their foot on the gas when driving through the Lakewood and the JBLM portion of I-5," said Heck.

The one solution that would definitely improve the traffic mess around the base would be to add a lane, or even two, to I-5. That would need approval in the state Legislature and would cost at least $1 billion. It's a plan that, so far, has not gotten bipartisan support in Olympia.