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JBLM growth pushes cars into neighborhood

Lakewood residents living next door to Joint Base Lewis-McChord say the base’s rapid growth has created major traffic headaches in their neighborhood.

Drivers who live and work in Lewis North are traveling through the neighborhood north of American Lake in droves to bypass the rush-hour congestion on Interstate 5. They’re diverting onto quiet streets to avoid delays, and some are speeding and blowing past stop signs, a dangerous situation made doubly so because the area has many children and lacks sidewalks, neighbors say.

“This is a residential area becoming a major thoroughfare,” said LeeAnn Smith, who spent more than a month last summer cutting back tree limbs and brush so children wouldn’t have to walk into the busy street to reach the bus stop at the corner adjacent to her apartment.

City officials said they began hearing complaints two years ago. They say they’re working with the residents to improve traffic flow and reduce cut-through traffic. They will take some steps in the coming weeks but would need to find the money to pay for a long-term fix. And they plan to talk with Lewis-McChord officials about the problems.

“You have bigger issues squeezing the traffic into areas it shouldn’t be,” Desiree Winkler, the city’s transportation division manager, told about two dozen residents at a meeting Tuesday night.

The meeting was organized so city officials could share the results of a traffic study conducted in August and receive comments on potential short- and long-term fixes.

Traffic is backing up at an intersection in the neighborhood that isn’t designed to accommodate so many vehicles, city officials say. Drivers crawl to the stoplight at Washington Boulevard so they can continue on Gravelly Lake Drive and jump onto Interstate 5, neighbors and city officials say. Drivers are increasingly turning onto other streets to get around the traffic jam, neighbors said.

“They’ll come flying through here,” said Michael Carter, a staff sergeant assigned to the 17th Fires Brigade based at Lewis-McChord who has lived off one of these cut-through streets for two years. “It’s just ridiculous.”

Carter, 41, is particularly concerned because he’s getting married Feb. 9 and his two stepsons, who love playing outside, will move in. He has sat in a beach chair in front of his home and mimicked taking down license plate numbers in an effort to slow down drivers.

Carter said some neighbors want to point the finger at the soldiers, but it was the military brass, not the rank-and-file, that decided to assign thousands more soldiers to Lewis-McChord.

The base’s active-duty population has grown from 19,000 to more than 34,000 since 2003. Lewis North has been transformed as a result, with new unit headquarters, barracks and homes. About 40 percent of soldiers stationed on the base live and work in Lewis North, a base spokesman has said.

Lewis-McChord spokesman Joe Piek said the city could raise the issue with base leaders, who would then determine if anything can be done to ease the congestion.

But Piek said the issue isn’t unique to Lakewood or any one neighborhood.

“It goes without saying a lot of people leave the base every day and in every direction, and that’s one of them,” he said.

Dan Penrose, program manager for a partnership between Lewis-McChord and nearby communities that’s aimed at addressing effects of the area’s military growth, said he expects traffic volumes to increase as families move into housing under construction at Lewis North.

He said he has talked with senior leadership at the base about traffic congestion around the base, including outside Lewis North. He got the sense base leaders would be willing to help.

Paul and Lana Matney have lived in their home on the most popular of the cut-through streets for more than 40 years and have seen the uptick in traffic.

“Between 4:30 and 5:30, it’s constant,” said Lana Matney, 69.

The couple had a chain-link fence erected in their front yard several years ago because they own dogs, and their grandchildren frequently visit.

Paul Matney recalled a former neighbor who used to place a children’s swimming pool or other objects out in the street to slow drivers.

Just before their home is a low hill that can obscure the upcoming intersection.

“Sometimes you wonder if they’ll be able to stop in time,” said Paul Matney, 71. “You can usually hear them before you can see them.”

To keep drivers from cutting through, the city will install a sign in the coming weeks prohibiting them from turning right onto Nottingham Road during the evening rush hour, Winkler said. City officials said they’d dispatch officers there to ticket violators.

“As soon as the sign goes up, we’re going to be there,” Community Service Officer Kevin McClure said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The city will schedule another meeting with neighbors to discuss measures to slow traffic on a stretch of Kenwood Drive. Eighty-five percent of drivers were traveling at least 16 mph above the posted speed limit, the traffic study found.

The city also is looking at long-term fixes to the intersection at North Gate Road and Edgewood Avenue, a chokepoint for drivers trying to turn onto Washington from Lewis North.

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