Bethesda faces BRAC traffic surge this fall

On a map, Bethesda might seem like an ideal spot for one of the U.S. military’s base consolidations. The National Naval Medical Center, where the consolidation will be completed this fall, fronts on six-lane Rockville Pike, just off the eight-lane Capital Beltway. Across the pike is the Medical Center Metrorail station and bus hub.

But the view from ground level at rush hour is very different. At least one loop of the Beltway is jammed. Traffic crawls along Rockville Pike as drivers enter and exit the medical center and the National Institutes of Health just across the road. Riders on the Red Line, Metro’s busiest, search for a rail car they can squeeze aboard.

Now add several thousand workers moving over from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the many thousands of patients and visitors who will come along with them. The consolidation into what will be the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda is scheduled to be done by Sept. 15, under the national Base Realignment and Closing plan.

What won’t be done are most of the improvements needed for the transportation network.

“People are going to have to understand that when BRAC kicks in, it’s going to be tough out there,” said Phil Alperson, Montgomery County’s coordinator for the transportation impacts of the consolidation.

He noted one attention-getting example: Today, there are 3,000 daily pedestrian crossings between the Metro station and the medical center on the other side of Rockville Pike. In September, the number is likely to be about 7,000.

Left in the lurch

Numbers are part of the problem, but other key concerns are time and money.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences this winter criticized the federal government for failing to give local jurisdictions enough time and support: “The normal length of time for development of highway and transit projects — from required planning and environmental processes all the way through construction — is, at best, nine years and usually 15 to 20 years.” The base relocation decisions were announced in 2005.

The Bethesda planners share these time and money problems with their colleagues in Northern Virginia who are trying to prepare for military relocations at Fort Belvoir and at the Mark Center in Alexandria. Some transportation improvements are funded while other, larger fixes are not.

Last week, five months before base consolidation, government and community representatives involved in the Bethesda transportation plan were anxiously following the fate of the federal budget bill and the $300 million it set aside for BRAC traffic improvements.

While hoping for the best, they also knew this: Major improvements won’t be started by September. Commuters need to worry about two things, Alperson said. There will be more of them this fall, and they’ll be sharing travel space with construction workers.

Status report

Many agencies and jurisdictions are involved in road, sidewalk and transit projects, as well as programs to encourage transit use. The National Academy of Sciences report noted that because planners didn’t have the time and money to get needed improvements done by September, they are hoping to ease congestion by getting many commuters to stop driving alone. The report says there is little reason to believe this will be a huge success. Meanwhile:

• Work is underway at the medical center to improve traffic flow at the gates, to provide more parking for employees and patients and to encourage personnel to take transit or join carpools.

Montgomery County is building pedestrian and bike paths near the medical center to improve travel.

• The county also is working with Metro and the Maryland Department of Transportation to upgrade bus service.

• The Maryland Department of Transportation plans to rebuild the intersections at Rockville Pike and Cedar Lane, Rockville Pike and Jones Bridge Road, Connecticut Avenue and Jones Bridge Road and Old Georgetown Road at Cedar Lane. The projects would add capacity and improve traffic flow. But no construction is underway yet, and work is unlikely to be done before 2013 or 2014.

• Planners want to build a shallow tunnel under Rockville Pike to link the medical center and the Metrorail/bus station. The tunnel plan includes elevator access to Metrorail. This would keep thousands of pedestrians off the pike, promoting safety and easing congestion. But construction is not yet funded.

• Some planners are interested in building ramps to connect the medical center directly with the Capital Beltway. But the security of the medical center and the safety of highway drivers, as well as financing, remain important concerns.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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