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Growth Pains as Lewis-McChord Population Booms

If you've been stuck in traffic jams on I-5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord recently, you're not alone. The back-ups are an almost daily occurrence since thousands of soldiers returned from deployments. The race is on to come up with some long-term solutions, not only to the transportation troubles but to education and social service demands. That's because military analysts predict an additional 14,000 more soldiers and their families will arrive by 2015.

Dan Penrose knows the frustration of commuting near the base . He works in Lakewood, making the daily trek from his home in Thurston County, a trip that requires him to take the freeway.

"There's no bypass. There are no other options for the general traveling public," says Penrose.

Dan Penrose is lead author of the transportation study.

When he gets to his office, it's Penrose's job to study the problem. He's a planner for the City of Lakewood, and lead on a project with the state and cities in Pierce and Thurston counties to provide answers.

"The I-5 corridor through Pierce County, south of Highway 512 and south of Thorne Lane, has not seen a lane expansion almost since inception, and I'm pretty sure they haven't added any lanes for the past 40 to 50 years," he notes.

The new study recommends adding a lane through the area, increasing I-5's capacity. In addition, Penrose says metered ramps could help, as well as encouraging more carpooling. Even if the recommendations were given a green light by the feds and state today, Penrose adds, "we're not looking at a full-blown capacity improvement for about ten years."

The study estimates transportation improvements along the JBLM section of I-5, roughly ten miles of roadway, will cost around $1 billon. Penrose says when considering those costs, it's important to remember the economic impact of JBLM, which he notes is the third-largest employer in the state.

Something of a hurdle for all the partners involved in the study, he says, is a fundamental tool the state relies on to guide planning, the Growth Management Act (GMA). Penrose says when drafted, GMA did not anticipate what would happen with the Washington's military installations.

"GMA never envisioned the military growth. We've been scrambling a bit to try and plan for this both beneficial and damaging impact." - Dan Penrose

Beyond traffic problems, school districts are bracing for hundreds more kids.

Ray Miller is with the Clover Park School District, which serves Lakewood and JBLM. "We are probably one of the most impacted (school districts) in the country, let alone the West Coast," says Miller.

The fluctuations in the numbers of soldiers and families on and off base make predicting enrollments tough. In a recent year, Clover Park suddenly found itself with 600 fewer students than expected. Miller says improved communication with the base is helping the district in making more accurate population predictions, which in turn mean better staffing commitments.

Then there are the anticipated social service needs.Dan Penrose says preparing for the future demands of a larger JBLM population affects all the jurisdictions - counties, cities and school districts - neighboring the base.

"With the multiple deployments, the concussions, the (situation where) I had a five year-old when I left now I have an eight year-old and I don't really know him.' We want to make sure we've got the services they need," says Penrose.

Both Penrose and Clover Park's Miller praised JBLM leaders for their collaboration . But they say it will take an unprecedented level of cooperation to meet the funding challenges associated with Lewis-McChord's predicted population boom.

Links to recent released studies:

WSDOT/City of Lakewood Transportation Study

Joint Base Lewis-McChord Growth Coordination Plan

Clover Park School District website