This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
With other areas suffering from the closure of military bases, it’s nice to know that the Pentagon values Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Really values it, to the tune of 14,000 more soldiers and dependents. That’s how many will arrive at the base by 2016 under an expansion announced last week by the Army.
JBLM would then host nearly 36,000 Army personnel. To put that number in perspective, it’s roughly the number of troops the United States had deployed in Afghanistan when President Obama took office. Add the Air Force and civilian presence, and the base would rank respectably among Washington’s medium-sized cities.
In economic terms, this is great news for a recession-plagued region. The local Army payroll, which now exceeds $2 billion a year, will increase commensurately. The new soldiers and families will spend much of their money in nearby communities, boosting retail sales, expanding private employment and adding tax revenue to local governments.
The plan anticipates massive new construction, which will likely translate into hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts and full employment for workers in the building trades.
Let’s not get too giddy, though. The expansion will also create stresses, and we’d like to see the Army address those more directly.
The Clover Park and Steilacoom school districts will both be slammed with droves of new students, increasing their enrollment by an estimated 9 percent and 13 percent, respectively. The Army plans to build new elementary schools on base, but it’s far from clear that those districts will come out even in the end.
The influx of troops also means more traffic on already congested roads. Interstate 5, for example, is often a nightmare around the base, and its gates are in for a 19 percent increase during rush hours, according to the Army’s environmental impact study.
Army planners appear to assume the Washington Department of Transportation’s plans for future road projects – including the essential cross-base highway – are a sure thing. If so, they are new to this state’s aggravating transportation politics, which always stack the cards in favor of doing nothing. The cross-base highway, for example, has been held up for many years by scarce funding and political opposition. Some seed money from the Pentagon could help a lot.
But let’s not dwell too much on this gift horse’s teeth. Overall, a larger Army presence will be a major gain for the South Sound economy. Joint Base Lewis McChord is one of the region’s vital economic assets; fortunately, the Defense Department continues to view it as a vital strategic asset.