There are lots of freeways on the Puget Sound region's transportation wish list: expanded freeways, extended freeways, reconstructed freeways. Brand-new freeways? There's only one. While...

Share story

SPANAWAY, Pierce County — There are lots of freeways on the Puget Sound region’s transportation wish list: expanded freeways, extended freeways, reconstructed freeways.

Brand-new freeways? There’s only one.

While King County ponders whether to add lanes to Interstate 405 and replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Pierce County is pushing for a new, four-lane expressway from Interstate 5 east to Spanaway, across the fenced-off expanses of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base.

Backers say the Cross-Base Highway is a missing link that would help relieve traffic congestion and create jobs in a fast-growing county.

“It’s like bridging Lake Washington for Pierce County,” County Executive John Ladenburg, who has made the freeway a personal crusade, says of building the link between the eastern and western parts of the county.

The idea of a highway across the bases isn’t new: The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber proposed it 20 years ago.

Environmentalists and environmental agencies have been fighting it almost as long. They say it threatens rare wildlife and would open the floodgates to more sprawl.

But, despite those objections, the project has picked up steam recently.

It passed a milestone in August when the Federal Highway Administration signed off on Pierce County’s environmental studies, making the freeway eligible for federal funding. The state Department of Transportation, which assumed the lead on the project that same month, expects to complete the preliminary design by next fall.

The biggest obstacle the Cross-Base Highway faces now is money: There isn’t any for construction. Voters in Seattle, Bellevue and Lynnwood may help decide whether it ever gets built.

Nearly three years ago, the Legislature gave King, Snohomish and Pierce counties permission to present a joint package of transportation projects and taxes to voters. No deal is imminent, but if officials ever do reach agreement, the Cross-Base Highway almost certainly will be part of it; Pierce County business and political leaders have made the project a top priority.

That means a vote to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, rebuild the Highway 520 bridge and, perhaps, extend Seattle’s light-rail line could also be a vote for a freeway across Fort Lewis.

If that’s how the package shapes up, “it’s going to be a tough call for us as an environmental community,” says Bryan Flint, conservation coordinator for the Tahoma Audubon Society and a leading project foe.

Oaks, prairies, squirrels

New urban freeways fell out of favor decades ago in this region and many others — in part because they were getting prohibitively expensive, in part because they were tearing neighborhoods apart. Neither is a big problem for the Cross-Base Highway.

Its price tag, $175 million to $200 million, is just a fraction of the billions needed to build King County’s megaprojects. Eighty percent of the right of way is government property, which highway builders wouldn’t have to buy.

And, because the Army and Air Force have kept much of that land off-limits for 85 years, there are no neighborhoods to disrupt along most of the route. The six-mile highway would displace just 10 homes, one business and a ballfield.

But there’s a flip side: The undeveloped landscape the Cross-Base Highway would traverse is part of an imperiled ecosystem that supports some of the rarest wildlife in Western Washington.

Like much of the state, it was shaped by ice. When the last glacier retreated about 10,000 years ago, it left a thick layer of dry, gravelly soil around South Puget Sound where Douglas firs struggled to survive.

Garry oaks and bunchgrass grew there instead, forming a mosaic of prairies, savannas and woodlands pocked with lakes, marshes and ponds.

The prairies were among the first places white settlers plowed and paved. Today, more than 90 percent of the prairie/oak-woodland ecosystem is gone. What’s left is mostly inside the two military bases’ fences.

“Fort Lewis became this sort of de facto conservation area,” says Chris Chappell, an ecologist with the state Department of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Program.

The Cross-Base Highway would cut across the north end of that conservation area, destroying or isolating more than 3,000 acres of grassland and woods. “We are basically kind of giving up that northern portion — writing if off,” Chappell says.

It’s only a corner of the remaining ecosystem, and it’s hardly pristine. Scotch broom and non-native grasses have invaded the prairies. Military jets thunder overhead. Shells explode.

“I don’t think this area is that significant,” says Ladenburg. “These are not some kind of old-growth forests we’ve got to protect.”

But Chappell and officials from the state Fish and Wildlife Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintain that, with so much of the ecosystem already gone, any further loss would be significant.

“I don’t consider it a tiny part,” says state wildlife biologist Mary Linders. “I consider it a large and significant part.”

Fights over ecosystems usually focus on a single species. Here the Western gray squirrel has played the spotted owl’s role, so far without similar results.

The squirrel once ranged south from Puget Sound past the Columbia River. It’s still abundant in California. But, unlike its non-native cousin, the ubiquitous Eastern gray squirrel, the reclusive Western squirrel doesn’t tolerate human company well.

In Western Washington, it survives only at Fort Lewis and McChord. Even there, its population is shrinking fast. Linders estimates fewer than 50 remain.

Western gray squirrels were observed in the Cross-Base Highway corridor and the lands north of it a decade ago. The environmental-impact statement Pierce County commissioned on the freeway acknowledges that, once the highway is built, any remaining squirrel population in that area almost certainly would be wiped out.

But less than 5 percent of the squirrel’s habitat on the bases would be lost, the document contends, and almost all is low-quality, having been fragmented by military roads.

Environmental-agency officials say the county is distorting facts to downplay the harm the freeway would do.

In a scathing letter in November 2003, the state Fish and Wildlife Department labeled the highway’s impact on the Western gray squirrel “profound and unacceptable,” and said the highway would place the species’ entire Western Washington population at risk of extinction.

The EPA rated each of the three versions of the project’s environmental-impact statement “inadequate.” The agency’s Elaine Summers says it’s highly unusual for a project to proceed after such a harsh evaluation.

Frustrated environmentalists have rolled out the ultimate weapon: the Endangered Species Act. The Tahoma Audubon Society and Bellingham-based Northwest Ecosystem Alliance filed a petition four years ago to list Washington populations of the squirrel as threatened or endangered.

Biologists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Olympia office agreed such protection was warranted, labeling the Cross-Base Highway “one of the most immediate threats” the squirrel faced. Higher-ranking officials overruled them in 2003, contending the Washington populations weren’t significant to the species as a whole.

To compensate for the lost habitat, highway backers have offered to buy 358 acres of private land bordering Fort Lewis near Roy, Pierce County. It would be restored and managed for squirrels and other disappearing wildlife that depend on oak/prairie habitat, such as the Mazama pocket gopher and the mardon skipper butterfly.

But environmentalists and environmental agencies say the property is too small and too degraded.

“The mitigation they’re proposing is purely speculative,” says Dave Werntz, the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance’s science director.

“We’re mitigating for species that aren’t even listed,” Ladenburg responds. “Legally, we don’t have to mitigate anything.”

Different visions of growth

Ladenburg and environmentalists do agree on one thing: The Cross-Base Highway would encourage growth. But they have radically different hopes and fears of what that growth would look like.

In addition to the Cross-Base Highway, Pierce County also has plans to widen 176th Street East, a two-lane road that starts where the freeway would end. Together, the two projects would create a four- or five-lane artery from I-5 east to Orting, about 15 miles.

New subdivisions and condos already are displacing pastures and orchards along 176th. Almost the entire corridor is inside the urban-growth boundary Pierce County established a decade ago.

But Flint, of the Audubon Society, fears the road improvements will increase pressure from developers to push that boundary farther into the countryside. “We’ll have malls in Graham,” he predicts.

When Ladenburg speaks of the highway’s potential to induce growth, he speaks not of housing but of jobs.

The largest block of industrially zoned land in the region sits three miles east of the Cross-Base Highway’s east end, in Frederickson, Pierce County. Despite aggressive marketing, most of it’s still vacant.

The Port of Tacoma has sold only half the 600 acres it acquired in Frederickson in the 1960s. Jeff Bishop, the port’s industrial-development manager, says poor road access has been “a significant marketing barrier” that the Cross-Base Highway would help alleviate.

Building the freeway to spur more employment in Frederickson is really smart growth management, Ladenburg argues: One worker in four who lives in Pierce County commutes north to a job in King County. If more could work closer to home, the whole region would benefit.

More commercial development in Frederickson also would mean less development pressure on prime farmland in the Puyallup Valley, he adds.

Environmentalists generally get along well with Ladenburg. Flint applauds the county executive’s commitment to saving farmland. He says he has no objection to more industry in Frederickson.

“We just don’t think the Cross-Base Highway is worth the price,” he says.

The road ahead

While state transportation engineers fine-tune the project’s design, they also are putting the finishing touches on a formal agreement with the state Fish and Wildlife Department to acquire and restore the Roy property. Officials say it should be signed later this month.

Environmentalists still are pushing for endangered-species protection for the Western gray squirrel. A U.S. District Court judge upheld the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision last year; that ruling has been appealed.

“The squirrel is leverage for us,” says Flint. Without it, he says, there’s not much the Cross-Base Highway’s foes can do now except lobby to deny the project funding.

Ladenburg, meanwhile, is looking for ways to cobble together enough money: Maybe $30 million from the federal government, he says. Maybe $30 million from another state gas-tax increase. Maybe $100 million from a possible regional transportation package.

In the corner of his office, behind the coat tree, stands a shiny shovel, wrapped in plastic. Ladenburg says he’s saving it for the highway’s groundbreaking ceremony.

He’s just starting his second — and final — four-year term as county executive. “I’d like to use that shovel before I leave here,” he says.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.