Jackknifed semitrucks, mangled cars and an Amtrak train derailment are all recent disasters that closed Interstate 5 and caused massive traffic jams in the South Sound.
“It’s a mess,” said John Sewell.
About 120,000 cars drive through the Nisqually Delta daily.
When I-5 closes, there aren’t many places people can go.
“We’ve got really limited options here. We’re bound by Puget Sound to the north. We’re bound by Joint Base Lewis-McChord to the northeast,” said Marc Daily, Thurston Regional Planning Council executive director. “When I-5 closes, you’re going to get on those local roads, but it’s going to be a difficult time to get where you’re trying to go.”
One place many people head is into Yelm.
"It’s backed up for a mile back that way, or this way, or that way, at that intersection and it’s just terrible,” said Sewell.
Yelm Police Chief Todd Stancil knows traffic can be a nightmare.
"To be honest, people can get out of their cars, go grab something to eat and their car doesn’t even need to move. That’s how bad it is,” he said.
From now on, the city of Yelm is taking a different approach.
If the interstate shuts down for more than an hour, they’ll activate their emergency plan.
City workers will put up detour signs and flaggers will control intersections.
Once Yelm gets traffic cameras, they’ll ask WSDOT to extend green lights. They’ll also have Washington State Patrol issue alerts to semitruck drivers, funneling them to alternate routes, like SR 7 or SR 12.
“Hopefully they make some difference. When I say some difference, it might reduce your travel time through Yelm from four hours to three hours,” said Stancil.
County leaders also want to add roundabouts to busy intersections, like SR 507 and SR 702, which is where backups can stretch for miles. The change would speed up traffic flow.
“There just isn’t a fix, there isn’t. There are things we can do to mitigate the impacts and we’re trying to uncover every one of those we possibly can,” said Daily.
Road closures anticipated to last four hours or longer will also involve JBLM opening the perimeter road to add an additional lane of north or southbound traffic.
"We just need to treat this like a parade, except no one’s having fun and no one’s getting candy,” said Stancil.
Residents are recommended to sign up for alerts through the Thurston County Emergency Management system. The police department will send out messages about traffic concerns as soon as they’re aware an event is happening.
The city of Yelm worked alongside regional partners, including WSP, Thurston Regional Planning Council, JBLM, and WSDOT, to create the emergency plan.
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