Lakewood will study the affect of Fort Lewis’ growth on surrounding communities, thanks to a $1.8 million grant from a Department of Defense agency.
The funding from the Office of Economic Adjustment pays for two studies: one that looks at transportation issues and a growth coordination plan that assesses the strain of post growth on an array of issues, including housing, education, utilities and public safety.
“The growth of Fort Lewis brings development, but it also brings some challenges we need to study,” David Bugher, Lakewood’s assistant city manager, said Tuesday. “It’s definitely having an impact. We just need to figure out exactly what that impact is going to be.”
Lakewood is the lead agency on the study, which will include input from varied stakeholders like the federal government, state government, community colleges, municipalities, ports and school districts.
Lakewood officials describe it as a bit of a fact-finding mission: By determining hard data, Bugher said, local agencies can prepare for growth and have more specific requests to bring to elected officials in Congress.
The transportation study began in March and is expected to conclude in summer 2010. The growth coordination plan should begin in fall and conclude by December 2010.
Fort Lewis is in the midst of a massive growth as the Army expands and bases across the country are shuttered. About 31,000 soldiers are assigned to the post, up from about 19,000 in 2000. The number is currently projected to top out at 32,000 by 2013.
The Army is also adding a combat service support unit of about 1,000 soldiers and a medium combat aviation brigade of about 2,800 soldiers at Fort Lewis in the coming years.
The post will combine with McChord Air Force Base next year to form Joint Base-Lewis McChord. Almost 6,000 airmen are assigned to McChord; almost all of the growth on the joint base is expected to occur on the Army side.
Fort Lewis plans to cope with its growth by reorganizing the post into a series of 13 neighborhoods, each anchored by a mixed-use area and designed to be walkable by most who live there. Each neighborhood, according to a master plan unveiled in May, will have wider sidewalks, on-street parking, street cafes and restaurants.
McChord has its own master plan, and garrison officials expect to sync the two plans shortly after the two installations merge.
Officials from Lakewood and Fort Lewis meet monthly to talk about the growth of the post and its impact on the surrounding areas, said Ellie Chambers-Grady, the city’s economic development manager.
Only about 30 percent of soldiers and dependants live on Fort Lewis. The rest are spread largely throughout Pierce and Thurston counties, with Lacey (23.7 percent) and Lakewood (16.4 percent) the most affected.
“A larger Fort Lewis is going to have more of an impact because it’s in such a dense area,” Chambers-Grady said. “And it’s also much more visible.”
Geography makes Fort Lewis’ situation unique. Most of the military’s larger installations are located in the countryside. And the bases in urban areas – think Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., or Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in southern California – aren’t seeing significant growth.
The transportation study’s main objective is to assess if the local roads can help alleviate congestion on Interstate 5, which is often jammed for miles near Fort Lewis during rush hour. If the road system isn’t, the grant provides funding to determine alternative plans.
The growth coordination plan aims to tackle larger issues like infrastructure and resources. For example, a larger force at Fort Lewis will mean more soldiers will be looking for places off post to live, meaning surrounding cities could work with construction firms to build homes and apartment buildings that are affordable for an average soldier. Public utilities will get a heads-up on the increasing demand. And since many of the troops are married, their children will take up more classroom space.
About $1.3 million of the grant will be spent on the growth coordination plan. The funding allows only for planning purposes, not to kick-start any capital projects.
“What no one wants to see happen is that we do this study, and then it sits on the shelf,” said Dan Penrose, who is overseeing the grant for Lakewood. “If we study these issues but don’t react to what’s happening, then we haven’t done our jobs.”