TACOMA, Wash. — A provision in a military construction bill that passed the U.S. House this week aims to free up federal money to pay for traffic improvements around high-growth military installations, such as Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The provision, submitted by Democratic Rep. Denny Heck of Olympia, demands that the Pentagon complete a study on “worthwhile” traffic improvements in and around military installations.
Money for the traffic projects would come from the Defense Access Roads program, which spends about $20 million a year near military installations.
Heck contends the program is outdated and ill-suited for military installations in urban areas, such as JBLM.
The roads program will not release money for off-base road projects unless military growth causes traffic to double in an area or the armed forces require a new access road for a military purpose, according to a 2008 Government Accountability Office report.
That’s a high barrier for the cities around JBLM, even though Interstate 5 through the base is one of the most congested stretches of highway in the state.
The roads program “does not work for our area or other areas experiencing the same thing, namely rapid growth of the military in urban areas,” Heck said.
He hopes the study called for in the military construction bill will lead to changes in the roads program, eventually benefiting communities impacted by the military’s explosive growth during the Iraq and Afghanistan war years.
Heck is looking for a co-sponsor for another bill he wants to submit that would provide $600 million for road projects in military communities. The funds would be managed by the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment, which works with local governments.
The $71 billion bill that passed the House this week also funds the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It also includes $173 million for Navy construction projects in Bremerton, Port Angeles and Whidbey Island.
The Army is in the midst of a postwar drawdown, so the military construction budget does not propose funding for new resources at JBLM.
JBLM’s ranks of active-duty soldiers nearly doubled between 2003 and 2011, rising from 18,000 to a peak of about 34,000. The numbers are coming down now that the base south of Tacoma is losing units to the drawdown. Even so, Heck expects it will remain larger than it was before the wars.
“We’re still way ahead of where we were a decade ago,” he said. “Given the fact that JBLM is the largest power projection platform on the West Coast, our strategic location is going to make us a place of continued importance.”