Operation I-5 Partnership to Relieve Congestion
How innovative management was the key to relief for I-5 drivers
A watershed Labor Day in 2010
Holiday traffic in western Washington is traditionally heavy as motorists brace for the wave of people returning home. Labor Day in 2010 was no exception. Interstate 5 traffic was congested as usual, as drivers headed for parts north of Olympia. The brake lights began around State Route 510 (Marvin Road) mid-day, and continued into the evening.
Motorists expected the following day, Tuesday, Sept. 7, to have a commute closer to normal. As they headed out for the day, however, they came upon bad news - in the form of bad traffic. The stifling, stop-and-go traffic made Labor Day travel look free flowing by comparison, and the busiest highway in the state ground to a halt as northbound drivers crested the hill overlooking the picturesque Nisqually basin. The view of brake lights stretching for miles was just plain ugly.
Northbound backups stretched a whopping 11 miles that day, and turned a typical 15-30 minute straight-shot commute from Lacey to Lakewood into an endurance feat that took 45-90 minutes to navigate. People noticed, and they were not happy.
Over the past decade, populations in Thurston and Pierce counties have grown exponentially, along with numerous large-scale businesses that have moved into the area. These include largely staffed enterprises such as State Farm, Intel, FedEx, and Cabela’s, as well as rapid development in the Hawk’s Prairie Industrial area. Concurrent with population and business increases has been growth in JBLM's operations and staff.
This growth pushed the I-5 corridor, which had been approaching capacity for the better part of a decade, to its tipping point. That Sept. 7 marked a tangible, unacceptable, amount of congestion.
Although the problem seemingly occurred overnight, that day's dramatic backups were the result of the start of a new school year combined with growth at JBLM. Days went by with no marked improvement; it was obvious that, unlike previous holidays, traffic was not going to level out on its own.
In the early 1990s, Congress made an effort to save money by consolidating military bases across the country. Fort Lewis and McChord Airfield bases not only survived the cuts, but in 2005 were directed to become a joint facility. This merger became a reality in 2010.
In 2010, the combined total of direct military and civilian personnel and their family members was about 131,501 people. JBLM estimates that this population count steadily and slowly increased over seven years (2003-2010) by almost 40,000. Then between February and September 2010, the JBLM consolidation increased the area’s population dramatically when 18,000 troops returned from deployment.
Initially, the impact of those troops returning to JBLM was not noticeable because soldiers went on leave or took time off to be with their families. But on that fateful Tuesday, Sept. 7, they went back to work - all at once - and I-5 was overwhelmed.
But what could be done about the traffic problem?
WSDOT and JBLM decided to join forces. Immediately the two agencies formed the Traffic Circulation Committee – an operations planning team comprised of leaders from JBLM, WSDOT, Washington State Patrol and local municipalities. The team met weekly to identify issues, brainstorm solutions, assign actions and communicate progress.
The goal of the team was to collectively identify solutions to transportation issues in and around JBLM by creating a holistic traffic and gate plan, complete with decision points, milestones, resources, and identified risks. Fitting nicely within WSDOT's "Moving Washington" strategy, innovative ideas began to emerge.
Focused on the Moving Washington strategies, the team looked at a broad spectrum of ideas that could improve traffic flow to and from the freeway, and to reduce the need for motorists to use the freeway. Many of the ideas required quick coordination, cohesive cooperation and a willingness among several agencies to drop everything and jump on board. This cooperation led to accelerating the permitting and approval process, working in non-traditional areas, and an open-mindedness to try new approaches. Once the ideas were identified and agreed upon, the below improvements occurred within about five days.
The result? By October 5, the I-5 corridor was flowing again through the morning commute and drive times decreased.
Step 1: Improve the I-5 interchanges
The team started their work by brainstorming small changes to existing interchanges along the route to maximize the efficiency of freeway operations. Five I-5 interchanges took traffic on and off the military base. Within days, WSDOT had:
- Modified lanes at an interchange to improve egress from the base
- Retimed signals at two interchanges to improve traffic flow
- Added signing at an interchange to improve right-turn flow
- Increased WSDOT Incident Response services in the area
Step 2: Review JBLM operations
For its part, JBLM looked at its base operations and implemented several improvements. They included:
- Launching a new marketing strategy for rideshare/vanpool participants
- Adding personnel to the Lewis Main gate
- Opening the 32nd Street Gate (Lewis North) for ingress during the a.m. commute
- Added flaggers at intersections to decrease wait times for traffic leaving the base
Step 3: Beef up congestion-relief activities
More Incident Response service
WSDOT and the Washington State Patrol (WSP) have a long history of partnering together to clear incidents from the roadway as soon as possible. Knowing that incidents are a major contributor to congestion, WSDOT increased Incident Response services in the area. Rovers focused their efforts on I-5 from Martin Way in Lacey to JBLM’s Main Gate, and from the I-5/SR 512 interchange (north of JBLM). WSDOT also extended the hours of IR rovers, starting earlier each weekday to get ahead of the morning commute.
WSP Roadway Clearing
WSP worked with WSDOT to remove stalled or disabled vehicles immediately from lanes to shoulders, and from shoulders to highway exits, to reduce visual distractions for drivers.
Modified Weigh Station Hours
Another step WSP took was to revise operational hours for the Mounts Road freight weigh station. The Mounts Road weigh station is located on northbound I-5 south of the base and north of Lacey. Its traditional and mandatory weigh station hours were during weekday morning commutes. Trucks merging right and exiting into the weigh station were exacerbating congestion. Through the traffic circulation committee, leaders from the agencies agreed that changing the hours of operation would help traffic flow more efficiently.
Step 4: After short-term fixes were in place, the focus turned to medium- and long-term improvements to the I-5 corridor.
WSDOT's improvements to the I-5 corridor included new ramp meters between SR 510 in Lacey and SR 512 in Lakewood. Crews also installed additional CCTV coverage. An auxiliary lane was added for traffic on southbound I-5 between Thorne Lane and Berkeley Street. WSDOT is now working to identify long-range improvements to I-5.