Improvements to I-5 through JBLM have been ‘game-changer’ for congestion
It’s been three months since the second phase of I-5 construction through Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) wrapped up. But are the HOV lanes doing their job, and have the improvements made a difference to drivers?
The new northbound I-5 HOV lane opened just south of the JBLM Main Gate in July. I drove it the following weekend on a trip back from the beach, and I was flabbergasted. The normal, frustrating, bumper-to-bumper grind from Lacey up through JBLM just vanished where the HOV lane started. I couldn’t believe that the traffic would disappear so quickly, just by adding that one lane, but it did.
I thought maybe this was a one-off — perhaps the traffic was just light that day.
But it wasn’t. The Washington State Department of Transportation looked at its heat maps, which track congestion, and they show similar results.
“The previous congestion that we saw in the northbound direction and the delay that we would see historically at JBLM’s Main Gate disappeared,” WSDOT’s Cara Mitchell said.
It confirms what Mitchell has been seeing personally on her drives through the area: The HOV lane is working.
The southbound HOV lane opened a little later in July, and so did the new shared exit to Thorne Lane and Berkeley, and that drive has seen a similar improvement over the first few months of operations. It has also eliminated the weaving and merging between those exits that caused extra congestion.
“The congestion that we historically saw build between 512 and Bridgeport moved further south, down to JBLM Main Gate, and that’s what we expected,” Mitchell said.
That’s where the phase two freeway improvements end, and the road goes back to three lanes.
Pushing the congestion south is not ideal, but the next phase of construction will widen the freeway down to the Steilacoom-DuPont Road and rebuild that entire interchange. That work is set to begin in 2023.
Mitchell knows it’s difficult to wait so long to fix this problem, but WSDOT is doing what it can, as fast as it can.
“We only have a certain amount of right-of-way,” Mitchell said. “We only have a certain amount of lanes; we only have a certain amount of money. We need to get the biggest bang for our buck when we are doing these projects.”
The state is also starting to look at widening I-5 all the way through Nisqually to deal with that daily chokepoint, but that work will likely include a new bridge and quite a bit of environmental work before it goes to the legislature for approval.
But, for now, it’s time to celebrate some success. It’s important to highlight when projects do what they were designed to do and pay out on promises made to the public.
“This is a game-changer for commuters who are trying to get from Point A to Point B, picking up their kids going to soccer practice or football games or to work,” Mitchell said. “Time is valuable, and that’s what this is about, improving our lives with these improvements.”
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