What? WSDOT is removing trees?

 By guest blogger Claudia Bingham Baker

Many of you have contacted us recently to express concerns about WSDOT’s plan to clear 500 trees along a 14-mile stretch of Interstate 5 between State Route 510 in Lacey and State Route 512 in Lakewood to provide a clear line of sight for seven new traffic cameras we’re installing. You have asked us why the trees need to come down, why we don’t just relocate the cameras, why we are spending money on installing cameras instead of fixing bridges and roadways, and other questions. 

We at WSDOT recognize and appreciate the importance of trees. We value them for their ability to increase water quality, to increase air quality, and to help prevent erosion. We agree that they beautify the I-5 corridor and we don’t take lightly the task of removing them. 

One of several locations over 14 miles where we
will be removing trees for line of sight.
 We’d like to answer your questions with clear and straightforward answers. Yes, it’s true that we are removing 500 trees starting on Monday, March 24. They will be removed from seven areas that are all within WSDOT right of way. Most of the trees are Douglas firs and Cottonwoods, and all of them obscure clear line of sight to the highway and adjoining ramps. How do we know they obscure the view?  Because our environmental staff in the field used a thoughtful and deliberate approach to tag only the trees that would block the cameras, ensuring that a minimal number of trees would be removed.

You’ve asked why we don’t just relocate the cameras in the highway median or in other areas where trees would not obscure the view. The locations for the new cameras were also carefully chosen to provide for the most efficient camera operations. Those locations take into account the availability of supporting hardware, adequate access for camera maintenance, and the length of the corridor covered at each location. It’s important that the cameras have a full 360 degree clear line of sight to operate properly. 

You’ve asked why we are installing cameras instead of fixing bridges or roads. It’s important that you know that one is not sacrificing the other, and here’s why. The funding for the camera installation came from a 2011 Federal TIGER III Grant, which was actively sought in partnership with Joint Base Lewis-McChord and neighboring jurisdictions to address highway congestion by improving traffic operations. This grant was not available for maintenance and preservation needs, so the cameras are not being installed at the sacrifice of other funded work within WSDOT. The total grant funding came to $15,000,000. More information about the awarded grant can be found on the following linked pdf:

You’ve said that we just have too many people and too few roads, and you don’t see how cameras will help reduce congestion. WSDOT agrees with you that we are at a critical service level on many of our state’s highways. We also know that we can’t build our way out of congestion. So what can we do? We can maximize the effectiveness of our existing highway system. We do that by installing intelligent transportation devices, and cameras are only one piece of that puzzle. 

Cameras are especially good at helping first responders like the State Patrol and local fire jurisdictions to respond more quickly to, and to clear, roadway incidents. Much of our traffic congestion (some say up to 50%) is caused from lane closures caused by collisions. Anything we can do to increase response times goes a long way in reducing overall congestion. Just as important, the new cameras will support efficient operations of 17 new ramp meters being installed within the corridor. The cameras will allow WSDOT staff to control ramp meter rates during heavy traffic, which will help traffic move better along the mainline highway and reduce collisions at merge points (that collision effect again). Cameras also provide real time traffic information to the public and media through our web pages.

Along with the cameras and ramp meters, WSDOT will also install variable message signs, travel time signs and data stations. All of these devices help WSDOT communicate with you, the driver, so you can make informed decisions about your travel plans. 

WSDOT has several web pages that discuss the improvements that are being made for the I-5 JBLM corridor. The active construction project that involves installing the seven new closed circuit TV cameras can be found here:

More information about the benefits of ITS devices can be found here:  http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Operations/ITS/

We understand that you do not want trees to be cut down. We recognize that trees improve our standard of living and help define the Pacific Northwest. We are removing only necessary trees, and we are replanting 500 trees after the construction project is complete. The trees will be planted at two locations, the I-5/Marvin Road area in Lacey and the I-5/DuPont Steilacoom Road in DuPont. 

Thank you for your comments and understanding.