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Mass transit to Olympia: Let’s start planning

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Oct. 26, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
November 1, 2010 5:56 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord has traffic. Sound Transit has trains. Can we talk?

It’s time Sound Transit and the Thurston County Commission started thinking about bringing regional bus and train service to Olympia.

Anyone who travels between Olympia and communities to the north knows that traffic between Lakewood and the state capital has become routinely hellish. It can take an hour to an hour and a half to make what used to be a fast drive. The congestion has been aggravated by population growth, much of it at Lewis-McChord, where the troops seem to get reinforced every time the Pentagon closes bases elsewhere.

JBLM is now poised to get bigger still, with an influx of about 14,000 additional soldiers and dependents.

As it happens, Interstate 5 shrinks from eight lanes to six not far from where Lewis-McChord begins to disgorge its traffic. That bottleneck will get a lot tighter when the base swells to 36,000 people. Add that to the existing traffic nightmare, and it’s clear the state must create new HOV lanes to connect the planned high-occupancy lanes in Tacoma to points south.

But mass transit is also a logical part of the solution. Those HOV lanes would do the most good if they were efficiently carrying Sound Transit’s express buses through the congestion.

And extending Sounder’s fast commuter rail service to the south also seems logical. Sound Transit is already preparing to extend the line from the Tacoma Dome to Lakewood. Tracks run from Lakewood into the Olympia area; in fact, Amtrak already has an Olympia-Lacey stop.

The transit agency hasn’t done ridership and cost studies for expansion to Olympia, but the time is ripe to look closely at the option.

Its service could be extended in one of two ways, either by annexing the Olympia area into the regional transit district or by an inter-local agreement between Sound Transit and the Thurston County Commission. Either option would mean a tax bump for county residents who’d wind up in the agency’s service area.

People who live in the urbanized areas of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties now pay nine-tenths of a percent sales tax and a motor vehicle excise tax for transit services; the proceeds must be distributed equitably among the counties.

The populations of Thurston and south Pierce counties are only going to grow in the decades ahead. Sooner or later, the region’s leaders will have to turn to mass transit as an efficient and reliable way to get workers in those areas to jobs – and to curb more highway congestion in the bargain. JBLM’s expansion argues for getting the planning started sooner, not later.

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