September 7, 2012

Prince George’s County and Maryland leaders say that bringing jobs to the areas around Metro stations is one of their top priorities. They can follow through on this promise by making sure that the $600 million regional medical center planned for the county lands at a Metro site.

When Metro came to the region starting in 1976, suburban counties handled it in different ways. Arlington zoned the areas by its stations for lots of new residences and offices while keeping lower densities farther away. As a result, more than half of the county’s property tax assessment value comes from only 11 percent of its land area — its two Metro corridors — and it enjoys consistently low property taxes as a result. While the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor added tens of thousands of jobs and homes, traffic levels remained largely unchanged, while rates of riding transit, walking and bicycling spiked.

Montgomery County enjoyed similar success by the stations in Bethesda, Rockville and Silver Spring, and it is now trying to accomplish the same thing in Wheaton and White Flint.

Fairfax County, on the other hand, set itself up for a traffic nightmare by using its stations for little more than park-and-rides; by building four Metro stations around Tysons Corner, the county is working hard to reverse that decades-old mistake.

Prince George’s County, sadly, has not captured much of the benefit of the development possibilities generated by Metro. From the start, the county’s lack of federal jobs relative to its neighbors put it at a disadvantage, but it failed to make a priority of locating stations in places ripe for transit-oriented development, and past leaders scarcely exerted themselves to encourage development at the stations.

Now, County Executive Rushern Baker wants jobs near Metro, including a relocated FBI headquarters. The new publicly funded hospital, which doesn’t come with all the cumbersome security requirements of the FBI, is a prime chance for leaders to follow through on such promises.

University of Maryland Medical Systems Corp. (UMMS), which would build and operate the facility, is staying mum about its site criteria, but there’s reason to worry. Gazette columnist Barry Rascovar said that the plan “assumes 100 acres of land” in central Prince George’s. Baker has said he favors the 60-acre Landover Mall site.

But there’s no reason a hospital needs 100 acres, or 60, or anywhere close to that. Plans call for 278 beds, with the space to expand to 350. George Washington University hospital, with 371 beds, takes up about 2.5 acres. The University of Maryland’s Weinberg Building in Baltimore uses 4.5 acres for 757 beds, including 333 in intensive care. John Hopkins’s main campus hospital, the top hospital in several specialties, uses eight acres for 1,051 beds and is building a 1.6 million-square-foot facility on only five acres more.

Prince George’s County is rife with large tracts of empty land right by Metro stations that would be perfect for a hospital. At Largo Town Center, one owner controls 20 acres in front of the station entrance. Several promising sites of eight to 16 acres surround the New Carrollton station. There’s even about 60 acres of public land by the Morgan Boulevard station.

All of these sites are also easily accessible from the Beltway, which is important for residents who don’t live near transit. But only a hospital with good access to both transit and highways can truly serve all residents well. Ten percent of Prince George’s residents do not own cars. A site such as Landover Mall, with scant bus service and more than a mile to the nearest Metro station, would make reaching the hospital difficult for many. Meanwhile, besides Metrorail itself, several bus lines already serve most stations as well. New Carrollton also connects to MARC, Amtrak and the future Purple Line.

Plus, a Metro-accessible site would make the jobs at the hospital far more appealing to people from across the region. Hopefully many of the doctors, nurses, support staff and others will live nearby, but many will not. If they drive, they will further clog up the already-congested Beltway and regional roads.

A hospital near a Metro station would draw more economic activity to the county and provide accessible health care to more residents, while saving the state countless transportation dollars and minimizing the negative health effects of the pollution produced by those driving to the site.

Prince George’s and Maryland made some short-sighted choices when building Metro. The hospital decision could be another they rue for generations — or it could be an example of smart thinking that future residents will cheer for just as long.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.