This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Drivers stuck in the increasingly heavy traffic around Joint Base Lewis-McChord can take some comfort from a new report commissioned by Congress. It not only recognizes their pain, it suggests ways to alleviate it.
Most prominently, the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board urges Congress to move quickly to fund road improvements in communities most affected by expansions at military installations – including JBLM – either by special appropriations or by reallocating unused stimulus funds. We second that recommendation.
Much of that new traffic on Interstate 5 near JBLM is a result of the military implementing the base closure and realignment plan (BRAC) approved by Congress in 2005 – which is taking units from bases scheduled for closure and distributing them to 18 others that are expanding.
JBLM is one that is growing – by leaps and bounds – not only when new units arrive but also when existing ones return from war zones.
Of the 18 bases that are growing, only four others are scheduled to get more new personnel and dependents than Lewis-McChord. When the base realignment process is finished, it’s estimated that JBLM’s Department of Defense population will have increased by about 13,500, and they’ll be bringing another 17,400 family members with them.
Many newcomers will live in base housing, but most will live in the cities and unincorporated areas of Pierce and North Thurston counties. And they’ll be joining the crush of vehicles on Interstate 5 between Olympia and Tacoma.
The new report cites the added impact of base expansion not only on the local community but also on military readiness – because personnel won’t be able to get to work “within acceptable commute times.” While the Defense Department has taken a largely hands-off approach to local transportation needs, the report notes, that’s “unrealistic” in congested metropolitan areas.
The military itself must be more proactive, according to the committee that wrote the report, by encouraging teleworking, traveling during off-peak times and carpooling. JBLM already has taken some helpful steps, including opening an additional gate and collaborating with the state Department of Transportation on future projects.
While a congressional allocation for road improvements could help in the short term, the committee notes that the Defense Department must accept more financial responsibility for the role its personnel play in adding to transportation problems.
The military already pays impact fees for dependents attending civilian schools. This report seems to suggest that similar fees should be paid for traffic impacts. About $3.8 billion is being spent on upgrades at JBLM, much of it to accommodate the increase in personnel. It just makes sense that at least some money be spent making it easier for those people to get to and from the base.
The South Sound community greatly benefits from its military presence and federal payroll – which helped it weather the recession better than it otherwise might have. But it’s in the military’s best interest to do whatever it can to make traffic less onerous for its own people as well as the civilian population.
Congestion shouldn’t interfere with readiness; the military’s job is too important for that to happen.