By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; A01
As more details emerge about the Army's plan to bring 22,000 employees to Fort Belvoir, state and local officials are warning that it will create horrific gridlock in southern Fairfax County when there is no money to fix the inadequate road network in that area.
The Army is preparing to shift military and civilian employees from across the region to Fort Belvoir in the next five years as part of the federal base closure and realignment plan. In effect, the move will drop a workforce the size of the Pentagon's in one of the least accessible corners of the region.
"The I-95 and Route 1 corridors are already extremely congested, and adding significant new transportation demands in those corridors will have very extensive impacts," Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said yesterday. "Providing adequate highway capacity to serve development of that magnitude is going to be extremely, extremely challenging. This is the most significant single land-use proposal on the table in the entire metropolitan area, without question."
Although some Fairfax residents have had a vague sense of what is headed their way, the bleak transportation reality is even clearer now with last week's release of the Army's proposal for situating the various agencies moving to Fort Belvoir, already Fairfax's largest employer.
The defining feature is to place most of the transferred workers -- about 18,000 -- at the Engineer Proving Ground, a mostly vacant 800-acre parcel a couple miles northwest of the post. Also slated for the proving ground, at a separate entrance, is a new Army history museum, possibly combined with a hotel and conference center that is expected to draw 1 million visitors a year.
Most of the employees and museum visitors are expected to arrive by Interstate 95 and its interchange with the Fairfax County Parkway. But that stretch of the parkway isn't built yet, delayed by a dispute over environmental cleanup. And an interchange can handle only about 1,500 cars an hour.
Homer and other worried state and local officials say the numbers just don't add up -- not even close.
But the Army says its plan presents the best hope for avoiding gridlock in the Fort Belvoir area because it diverts most of the new traffic away from the main post, which already has 23,000 employees and has never been easy to reach, squeezed between Route 1 (Richmond Highway) and the Potomac River. Studies by the Army's consultants show that Route 1 can handle only about 6,000 more cars a day. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, access to the post has tightened, with the addition of security checkpoints and the closure of a key road that crosses the post.
But the Army also acknowledges that the success of its plan to concentrate growth at the proving ground depends on transportation improvements for which little funding exists. The Army has identified 14 needed projects with a total price tag of $600 million; only about a quarter of those are funded.
"I'm not in the position to get the Army to pony up that kind of funding," said the post's commander, Col. Brian Lauritzen. "I am in a position to partner with local officials" to lobby the state or Congress for help, he added.
That won't be easy, Fairfax officials say. The Virginia legislature has been unable to agree on a major funding package for the state's existing transportation crisis, much less find money to address future problems, they point out.
And Congress is in no mood to put more money toward the plan, considering that one of the primary motivations for the base relocation process is to save money.
"They have no plan except for the tooth fairy plan: 'We hope Congress will see its way clear to provide a few hundred million in transportation infrastructure,' " said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "That's not a plan."
The transportation challenge provides ammunition to those who from the outset have challenged the military's regional realignment approach, which has centered on transferring about 30,000 employees from the District and such inner suburbs as Arlington County and Alexandria to farther-out locations -- primarily Fort Belvoir but also Quantico and Fort Meade. Army leaders say that in the post-Sept. 11 world, it is unsafe to have employees in urban office buildings. They also say it would be more economical to group agencies on government land, like Fort Belvoir, instead of continuing to pay rent.
Critics question that rationale. Even after the attack on the Pentagon, they say, it is far from clear that employees in relatively obscure agencies scattered in offices across the region are at any risk. Skeptics also question the military's claims of $49 billion in nationwide savings, noting that the Army's $4 billion budget for the relocations to Belvoir don't include many related costs, including roads.
The dispersal is also likely to accelerate the effects of sprawl, critics say. Moving 30,000 jobs out of the region's core makes it much harder for workers to reach them by transit. And the dispersal will spur more in its wake, in the form of the thousands of contractors who are expected to follow the military to Belvoir, Meade and Quantico.
The military "in one fell swoop made the most substantial land-use decision in the Washington region since the building of Metro," said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "It's that substantial in terms of shifting jobs and infrastructure farther out, where we can ill afford them."
The Army counters that it had transit in mind when it placed so many workers at the proving ground, because that site is closer to the Franconia-Springfield Metro station than the main post and would be easier to reach with a Metro extension. Critics, including Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), question the Army's decision not to try harder to make use of the most transit-friendly site, a mammoth federal warehouse within walking distance of the station.
Local officials recognize that the thousands of workers headed their way will help the rejuvenation of southern Fairfax. But they say this would have been better accomplished by better scattering the new employees, rather than clustering them mostly at the proving ground.
"It's like going into a restaurant and ordering a sandwich and getting the entire menu in one sitting," Kauffman said. "And in this case, it's all on one site."