Bethesda Naval expansion has neighbors bracing for traffic mayhem

July 20, 2011

Take a heavily congested area, add thousands of new commuters and then throw several construction projects into the mix. It’s a recipe for transportation disaster, some Bethesda residents fear.

With less than two months until a government-mandated expansion of the National Naval Medical Center, the community is bracing for traffic nightmares, increased danger for pedestrians crossing Rockville Pike and problems for businesses if customers stay away because of the expected congestion. The pain has already started, with several expansion-related construction projects snarling traffic this summer.

“I don’t think the area is ready” for the expected traffic, resident Debbie Michaels said, once thousands of employees and patients are moved from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the Bethesda hospital in late August. “I think the impact is going to be huge on everybody.”

The location of the site — along a busy corridor — adds to the challenges. The 245-acre campus of the National Naval Medical Center, commonly referred to as Bethesda Naval, sits between Rockville Pike and Connecticut Avenue, key commuter routes into the District and major links to the Capital Beltway. It’s also across Rockville Pike from the main campus of the National Institutes of Health, which has more than 18,000 employees.

Many are optimistic that the potential problems can be mitigated. Officials have planned nearly a dozen road, bike lane and sidewalk improvements, some of which are already complete. But officials are still trying to finalize funding for several projects and don’t expect the most substantial ones to be done until at least 2015.

Bethesda Naval’s expansion is part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure plan. Communities across the Washington region are confronting transportation challenges caused by BRAC moves, which are scheduled to be completed by mid-September. Montgomery County is among the most affected; Bethesda Naval, which will be known as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, will double its patient load, take in about 2,500 newemployees and accommodate nearly half a million more visitors a year.

The area already experiences significant congestion. Three of the intersections surrounding Bethesda Naval, including two on Rockville Pike, have been rated as “failing,” according to the Maryland State Highway Administration.

“There is not much more traffic that we can handle,” said Edgar Gonzalez, Montgomery’s deputy director of transportation policy.

Neighborhood concerns

On a recent weekday morning, Ed Krauze drove around the perimeter of Bethesda Naval, pointing out ways he and his neighbors will be affected by the expansion.

“It’s going to be a mess,” said Krauze, president of the Parkview Citizens Association, a group of residents whose homes border Bethesda Naval. “I think people see the big picture, the good cause, but day to day it’s going to be challenging.”

One of Krauze’s most serious concerns is that the area’s police officers, firefighters and ambulance drivers could have trouble navigating the gridlock.

“You’re literally dealing with a life-or-death situation,” he said.

Scott Graham, the assistant chief of Montgomery’s Fire and Rescue Service, said he doesn’t think response times will be affected because traffic usually flows in one direction — toward the District in the mornings, out of the District in the afternoons — and responders can use either side of the road. The county is also exploring buying equipment that will allow emergency personnel to control traffic lights, he said.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said he was concerned about response times but thinks that emergency personnel will adjust to the traffic. Police spokeswoman Lucille Baur said the issue is “being planned for” but declined to mention specifics.

Other residents said they are worried that the traffic will discourage people from shopping at businesses in downtown Bethesda, just south of the hospital.

If traffic increases significantly, “regular guests will still come, but some people may not want to deal with it,” said Joelle Mongoue, general manager of La Madeleine, a French cafe.

But, said Patrick O’Neil, the former head of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, “traffic problems are nothing new, and people tend to adjust pretty quickly.”

Others said the expansion could even benefit businesses.

“It will mean more people in the area, and that can never be a bad thing for businesses,” said Shawn O’Neill, senior vice president of Comfort One Shoes.

Residents are waiting to see how the changes affect pedestrian safety.

The number of vehicles using Rockville Pike at Bethesda Naval each day is expected to increase by about 4,500, and the number of pedestrians crossing Rockville Pike is predicted to grow from from 3,000 to 6,700, according to state and county data.

Leggett has pledged to monitor the intersection and assign crossing guards if needed.

But the “more people, the more risks,” said Michaels, who also serves on the county’s BRAC Implementation Committee.

Projects await funding

To help address pedestrian safety, the county hopes to build an underground walkway and high-speed elevators that would allow riders to go straight from the Metro station to the hospital. That $60 million project, however, is one of several awaiting federal funding.

Congress has approved $300 million in transportation funds for military hospitals affected by BRAC, but the Defense Department’s Office of Economic Adjustment must divide that money among three hospitals: Bethesda Naval, Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Fairfax County and San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas.

“We’re kind of just waiting to see when this falls from the sky,” said Sara Morningstar of Montgomery’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations.

Other projects awaiting funding include improvements to four intersections around Bethesda Naval, she said.

Several bike-lane and sidewalk improvements have already been completed. But the delay in funding for the major projects means commuters will soon have to deal with the dual frustrations of increased traffic and construction projects.

That frustration is likely to continue for awhile. Even if funding were to appear tomorrow, for example, the Metro project would not be completed until late 2015 at the earliest, county officials said.

Still, officials and residents remain optimistic.

“Look — traffic’s going to be a problem. But when it’s said and done, this can have a very positive effect on Bethesda and Montgomery County,” Krauze said. “I think there is a light at the end of the rainbow, but it’s just going to be a little dark and stormy before we get to it.”

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