WSDOT: Population boom to blame for I-5 exit congestion

DUPONT, Wash. – The Washington State Department of Transportation said it installed modifications at a traffic-plagued freeway off-ramp in Pierce County after commuters complained Exit 119 had turned into a nightmare.

But the agency also partially blames our region’s runaway growth, saying traffic volumes are approaching levels they’re not expected to see for at least another decade.

It’s yet another sign our region is growing faster than our infrastructure can keep up.

“When they first did it, it was terrible,” said driver Jaylen Starr. “It was absolutely atrocious.”

“Basically, to me, it’s not a good intersection under any circumstances,” said driver Mike Brown.

Many commuters accessing DuPont-Steilacoom Road from Interstate 5 told Q13 News traffic can be heavy.

“I can’t avoid it,” said Starr, “I have to come through here for work.”

To accommodate new train service planned for this fall, WSDOT had to make sure drivers did not get stuck on tracks during high-traffic volume. After a rough start and lots of driver feedback, WSDOT installed new signals and timers to keep cars moving.

“We went back, back to the drawing board and determined what are some other solutions that would maintain safety but still ensure traffic kept flowing,” said WSDOT’s Janet Matkin.

Part of the problem, Matkin said, is that WSDOT did not anticipate the area’s runaway growth when it planned construction.

Amazon opened a new warehouse in DuPont back in 2012, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord opened a new gate in 2015. Both added hundreds of new commuters to the roads.

WSDOT’s own data tells the story of congestion. In 2015, drivers using Exit 119 during the morning commute were about 1,000 cars shy of what planners predicted would look like in 2030. The evening commute has gotten even busier, where drivers are about 50 cars short of the 2030 projections.

That kind of growth is something WSDOT said planners couldn’t anticipate.

“We use the best information that was available at the time,” said Matkin. “We actually thought we were being a little conservative.”

There are similar bottlenecks around the region. In Snohomish County, WSDOT is looking for ways to ease congestion on the U.S. Highway 2 Trestle. That area is expected to add another 200,000 people by 2035.

Some drivers in DuPont said they, too, have noticed the growth down in the South Sound.

“People are getting stationed here, people are buying new homes here,” said Starr. “I feel like it’s going to get worse.”

WSDOT said it will continue to monitor backups and make improvements where it can, but drivers can also help reduce congestion by taking mass transit or car pool.

“Want people to know they have choices,” said Matkin. “Driving alone in your car may not be the best choice. If there’s other options available ... (look) at those choices."