More troops at Joint Base Lewis-McChord mean more I-5 traffic, demand on services

TACOMA — A new combat aviation brigade’s arrival at Joint Base Lewis-McChord this summer will make for more traffic on I-5 as soldiers get settled, but it also could signal the end of the Army’s recent expansion in the South Sound.

The 16th Combat Aviation Brigade is bringing 1,400 more sold

iers and 44 new helicopters to Lewis-McChord. After they get established, the Army has plans to add just 600 more soldiers at the base by 2016.

“That is all the additional growth we can see from here,” base spokesman J.C. Matthews said, stressing that plans could change and the Army could choose to continue building up Lewis-McChord.

Since 2003, the Army’s ranks at Lewis-McChord have swelled from 19,000 to more than 32,000, bolstering the southern Puget Sound’s economy during a recession but also straining the resources of local governments that weren’t prepared for so many soldiers.

Matthews said the base is working on projects to catch up to its growth, such as expanding a sewage treatment plant and collaborating with local governments on road work planning.

That makes for hundreds of millions of dollars in construction work in the next few years, including some $300 million in President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget proposal.

The growth reflects the Pentagon’s move to joint basing in 2005, a decision that put more resources at fewer bases. Lewis-McChord made the transition to a joint base last year.

The growth also stems from the success of the Stryker, Lewis-McChord’s marquee vehicle, in the Iraq War. Three Stryker brigades are stationed at the base today. That vehicle wasn’t in service until 2002.

“We’ve had a lot of growth,” said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair. “You just never know what’s going to happen. I would’ve never suspected we’d have three Stryker brigades.”

Local politicians crowed about the new aviation brigade in news releases last week, highlighting the Army’s decision to place it at Lewis-McChord as a sign of the base’s importance to the Pentagon and a boost to the economy.

But some Pierce and Thurston County residents are ready for a breather, at least until the state has a chance to improve roads around Lewis-McChord.

“I used to have evenings free to work around my house, or participate in community activities,” Tacoma resident Deborah Cade wrote in a letter to the Army commenting on the military’s expansion plans. She has commuted to Olympia for work for the past 15 years.

“Now I generally work late to try to ‘miss’ the traffic backup. Even with leaving my office at 6 or 6:30 (p.m.), I still regularly encounter traffic backups through JBLM, and rarely get home before 7:30 p.m. That is the hour and a half that I used to be able to do something other than work – now it’s gone.”

Army planners were mindful of congestion on I-5 when they responded to Cade and a few other Washington residents who wrote to express concerns about continued growth at Lewis-McChord. They noted that Puget Sound as a region has grown over the past decade, apart from the military’s expansion.

Planners also told residents that the Army scaled down its proposal for the aviation brigade at the base partly to limit traffic impacts. That decision meant Lewis-McChord would gain only about half the 2,700 soldiers who were on the table initially.

Washington transportation officials have identified $1 billion in unfunded capital projects that would improve traffic around Lewis-McChord. For now, they’re doing minor fixes, such as installing stop lights at highway on-ramps and encouraging the base to open more gates.

Typically the military doesn’t pay for off-base traffic improvements. In February, the Government Accountability Office and the National Research Council in separate reports urged the Pentagon to rethink that policy.

Kevin Dayton, a regional administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation, wrote in a December letter to Army planners that the congestion on I-5 could begin to affect the military as much as it frustrates the public.

He noted that the Army considered whether a base had the right military resources when it was considering where to place the new aviation brigade.

“The army should extend this logic to community transportation infrastructure necessary to support the addition of troops and their families,” Dayton wrote. “An inadequate transportation system off-base will negatively affect the ability of the Army to support the proposed action.”

The aviation brigade is an important asset for the base because infantrymen will be able to practice working with helicopters in the same ways they use them in combat. Army I Corps spokeswoman Maj. Kathleen Turner said last week that Lewis-McChord is the only military installation with an Army corps that doesn’t have an aviation brigade.

The Army plans to split the brigade between Lewis-McChord and Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Wainwright, near Fairbanks, likely will keep a general aviation battalion and medical evacuation units. Lewis-McChord will get the brigade headquarters and some attack elements, though the division of the units isn’t final, an Army spokesman said.

Turner said Lewis-McChord will pick up 24 AH-64 Apache helicopters and 20 UH-60 Blackhawks. The base already has 99 helicopters, though they won’t all belong to the new brigade.

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