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Analysis of Fort Belvoir Jobs Shift Paints Clearer Commuting Picture

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006

The planned relocation of 22,000 jobs to Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County will reshape the region's traffic patterns and also probably result in fewer Maryland families moving closer to the post than first thought, according to preliminary estimates.

Since the announcement last year of a mass relocation from Washington area installations to Fort Belvoir as part of the federal base realignment and closure process, Army and Fairfax officials have been trying to understand what impact the move would have on the area surrounding Fairfax's largest employer. Now a clearer picture is emerging.

Contrary to initial assumptions, most of the relocated employees will not need to move closer to the post because data show many already live within a manageable driving distance to Fort Belvoir. A third will come from south of the post along Interstate 95 or Route 1; the rest will load onto major highways such as the Capital Beltway, Interstate 395 and the Fairfax County Parkway.

Using the home Zip codes of most of the employees whose jobs are to be shifted, consultants hired by the Army to oversee the relocation recently estimated what routes those employees will take to and from Fort Belvoir once the changeover is fully in effect in 2011. The consultants are also surveying employees to gauge how many might use mass transit or move closer to the base.

The data show that after the realignment, the roughly 44,000 personnel who will be commuting to the post will be arriving from widely dispersed points: 41 percent will come from the south along Interstate 95 and Route 1; 28 percent will come from the north via the Capital Beltway and Interstate 395; 17 percent will come from the east via the Beltway and Route 1; and 14 percent will approach from the west via the Fairfax County Parkway. Current patterns show 60 percent of those at the base traveling there from the south.

The data are both daunting and encouraging, depending on one's perspective, say the consultants and Fairfax and Army officials, some of whom attended a public information session last week in Springfield.

Seen one way, the prospect of thousands more cars a day crowding through the Mixing Bowl -- at the juncture of the Beltway and I-95 and 395 -- is sobering. In addition, said Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), the broad dispersal of employees could complicate efforts to encourage them to use public transit. A north-south Virginia Railway Express line runs near the base, and Fort Belvoir officials are considering starting a shuttle to meet the end of Metro's Blue Line at Franconia-Springfield, but there are no transit lines to help workers who live in the east and west.

At the same time, the data show some reason for hope, officials say. Even though most of the installations being moved are north of Fort Belvoir, about a third of the relocated employees live south of the post. That means they will be spending less time on the roads than they do now. As for those coming from the north, they could benefit somewhat from a reverse commute, said Jim Curren, a transportation planner with the consultants advising the Army on the relocation.

One notable discovery, Curren said, concerns the National GeoSpatial-Intelligence Agency, which is moving to Fort Belvoir from Bethesda. A large proportion of the agency's 8,000 military and civilian employees live in Fairfax. Their relative proximity to Fort Belvoir would seem to reduce the chances that large numbers of those employees will feel the need to move their families closer to the base to reduce their commutes, he said.

Overall, 70 percent of all personnel being transferred are within an hour's drive of Fort Belvoir, and indications so far are that relatively few are planning to move, Curren said. More likely, he said, is that as turnovers at the relocated agencies occur, new hires and enlistees will choose to live closer to Fort Belvoir.

"We don't foresee a sudden relocation," he said. "Over time, we'll see change somewhat, but it will be something more natural."

The possibility that there won't be a wave of new families moving into the immediate neighborhood would cheer residents of southern Fairfax concerned about the pressure that would put on schools. From a transportation perspective, however, it would be better if the relocated employees lived closer to Fort Belvoir. Best of all would be if people moved onto the base itself, but it is open only to members of the military, and there are no immediate plans to build more than the 2,100 housing units there now.

Col. Brian W. Lauritzen, Fort Belvoir's commander, said that the Army is officially neutral on whether personnel should move closer to the base but that the post will do all it can to make the base and its environs as appealing as possible for those inclined to move.

"What we want to do is support a tasteful development of the institution. To the degree it encourages people to move because it's a great place and a quality product, we're passively encouraging people to relocate," he said.

Army officials and consultants cautioned against placing too much weight on the commuting estimates, noting that many employees are unsure where they'll be living in five years or even whether they'll be in the same jobs. Commutes will also be affected by whether agencies move to Fort Belvoir proper or to the Engineer Proving Ground a few miles northwest. The consultants will issue their siting recommendations at the end of the month.

No matter the commuting patterns, there is broad agreement that more needs to be done to prepare for the move. The Fairfax County Parkway remains unfinished, although there has been some progress in talks between the state and Army over cleaning up contamination along the unfinished link, a major sticking point. Things are moving more quickly on a connector road between Telegraph Road and Route 1. There are also long-term plans to add a carpool lane to I-95.

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