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Traffic, Traffic Everywhere – Including Rural Pierce County

"Last light on Mt. Rainier, seen from Orting, WA" by ingawh is licensed under CC by 2.0

Traffic is one of the most visible consequences of our region’s population growth.

It’s getting worse around Seattle. It’s getting worse around Tacoma.

But it's also getting worse in the farthest reaches of rural Pierce County. And local leaders say it's more than a mere inconvenience. 

When County Council members gathered Tuesday for a meeting in the eastern part of the county, traffic dominated the conversation — especially after some local officials got caught in it on the way there.

“The traffic is getting so bad that you end up waiting five minutes at the light, waiting for traffic to try to get out," said South Prairie Mayor Stu Terry before he corrected himself.

"It’s not a light, excuse me," he told the council. "It’s a stop sign. We don’t have traffic lights in South Prairie. We barely have lights."

That was a theme: the mismatched sight of long columns of traffic snaking through communities that pride themselves on small-town charm.

Local officials said the reason is simple. New houses are going up at a breakneck pace, but the highways remain the same size.

In Orting, where the County Council meeting took place, onetime daffodil fields have sprouted cul-de-sacs. There’s a cluster of new home developments north of the city’s core that locals call “New Orting.”

It’s one of the reasons the city’s population has doubled over the past two decades to more than 7,000.

Orting Mayor Joshua Penner said many new residents are young families who come to buy houses for less than $300,000, plus for views of farms and Mount Rainier.

But, with few industries nearby, the price some pay is three to four hours a day of commuting in heavy traffic to and from Seattle.

“The traffic such as it is, there’s the fiscal impact but there’s also a very real family and emotional impact, too," Penner said. "And that’s something that you see. People are frustrated. They’re visibly frustrated over the situation.” 

Making matters worse is the fact that so much of the county's business is conducted in its biggest city, Tacoma. It's hard for people to get there because the county's transit system doesn't extend into eastern parts of the county, said Pat Johnson, the mayor of Buckley.

"For some people, we may as well be asking them to go to the moon," she said. "Because they don't drive that far, they don't have a car that will get there, or are just afraid of all the traffic and the traffic changes."

Mayors are in a tough position because, while they can improve roads within their cities, they have no control over the state highways commuters rely on, Penner said.

Of particular concern to him is the two-lane north-south corridor through Orting, State Route 162.

State Department of Transportation officials studied the corridor and released recommendations last year. They range from short-term strategies to encourage people to drive less to long-term projects such as widening the highway.

But officials wrote that significant improvements to the road would have to compete for limited funding with other priorities in the state.

Penner said he and other mayors can continue to push the state. But, in the meantime, tens of thousands of new houses are slated for construction in the area around his city.

"The people that are going to be moving into these houses, they're going to be sold by the accessibility and affordability of the community," he said. "It's a great place to live. But they don't understand the traffic concerns that are going to come with it and that they, themselves, are going to be part of creating."

"Right now we have overburdened highways,” he added, “that are going to become impassable.” 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.