By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005
The Pentagon's plan to move tens of thousands of jobs from Metro-accessible urban centers to campuses outside the Capital Beltway will exacerbate the region's traffic, destabilize the real estate market and flood already crowded schools, local planners and elected leaders say.
What's more, officials across the region say the proposal runs counter to more than a decade of development planning that has been designed to slow sprawl and focus jobs and housing near mass transit centers inside the Beltway.
"No rezoning has ever had the impact that this one decision will have on our community . . . and it is a step backward from a transit-oriented point of view," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman, noting that the proposed changes would redirect thousands of employees out of Metro trains and into their cars.
Connolly was referring specifically to the Defense Department plan to move more than 18,000 jobs to Fort Belvoir in burgeoning southern Fairfax, but other jurisdictions face similar challenges. About 5,400 jobs could be moved to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and 3,013 to the Marine Corps base at Quantico in Prince William County.
While Bethesda is poised to add nearly 1,900 jobs near the Metro with the expansion of the military hospital there, most of the jobs would move from urban centers with easy access to rail, such as Crystal City and Rosslyn in Arlington County, to locations miles away from commuter lines.
"This single decision by an isolated federal agency contradicts all the vision and planning and progress of the region over the past decade . . . in terms of 'smart growth,' " said Jay Fisette (D), board chairman in Arlington County, which he said is losing 20,000 jobs, 10 percent of its commercial workforce.
Under the plan announced Friday, the Pentagon would close about 180 bases and installations nationwide to save nearly $49 billion over 20 years. Personnel also are slated to be relocated, mainly out of urban areas where older buildings do not meet new security requirements put in place since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
If the Defense Department's plan is adopted as proposed, the largest test would come in Northern Virginia.
Thousands of workers, most of them in Arlington and Alexandria, who rely on transit to get to their jobs would have to drive to Fort Belvoir. The sprawling base is served by a few congested roads in southern Fairfax. Thousands of families could relocate and move their children into area schools.
Connolly said his most immediate concern is that traffic could become impassable around the post. Other officials noted that there also would be secondary effects on taxes, real estate values, the local economy and schools.
"It's incumbent on the Pentagon and the federal government to provide resources to help localities absorb the impacts that they are creating with these changes," Connolly said.
On Friday, Connolly, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and other elected officials began to talk seriously about extending rail to Fort Belvoir and petitioning the federal government to foot the bill.
U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said he believes that has to get done now.
"It's gridlock now," he said. "The Army has got to help us get a Metro station. I don't see any way to avoid it."
Roads are clogged in southern Fairfax partly because Fort Belvoir officials closed Woodlawn Road, a key artery at the base, after Sept. 11 for security reasons. A $5 million study to build an alternative road is years away from completion.
Fort Belvoir stands to gain more than 18,000 civilian and military employees under the Pentagon's plan, spokesman Richard Arndt said. With about 24,000 workers now, it is Fairfax County's largest employer.
A carefully crafted development plan in southern Fairfax has been in the works for more than a decade. A prison was shuttered to make way for parks and housing. Residential prices boomed. An $81 million high school is scheduled to open in the fall, and a middle school is being built. An additional $55 million was allocated for road improvements.
But none of those plans accounted for an unexpected boom in population. Now planners will have to scramble, county officials said.
"We will have a classroom crisis like you have not seen in any other part of Fairfax County if most of those new workers settle there," Fairfax Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said.
The real estate market would not be spared, either. Although officials said it is too early to predict how housing prices would be affected, the increase in vacant urban office space in Arlington and Alexandria would have repercussions across the region, economists said.
Arlington alone would have 3.9 million square feet of leased office space emptied in the Pentagon's six-year realignment plan. Connolly said he is worried that those commercial losses in the inner counties would depress the market for office space all over, forcing jurisdictions to rely more on residential property taxes to balance their budgets.
Fort Belvoir officials said they, too, were surprised by the number of people who would be relocated there. The base is in the middle of a $450 million project to build about 2,000 units of housing for its military personnel. That doesn't include a new $500 million, 165-bed hospital, which was announced last week as part of the realignment plan.
The Pentagon's plan now goes before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which will make its recommendation Sept. 8 to President Bush. Bush will have until Sept. 23 to accept or reject the recommendations in their entirety.
If the recommendations are accepted, Congress will have 45 legislative days to reject them. Otherwise, they become binding on the Defense Department.
"It will change people's perceptions about where they can live and where they should live relative to their jobs," said Christopher J. Miller, executive director of the Piedmont Environmental Council. "It will penalize those families living in areas served by transit. They either will have to buy a car or use their car more or move to other places."