By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
As they battle sprawl, Washington area leaders say they face a stubborn foe, and it's not greedy developers or the tyranny of the automobile or the desire for big houses. It is the United States government.
In scattering employees to the region's outer edges, local officials and planners say, the federal government has undermined efforts to concentrate growth near public transit and the area's urban core -- the strategy local officials see as key to reducing traffic and conserving resources in a booming region.
The U.S. government, they say, has become a kind of master planner, making decisions, with little local input, that will shape Washington's commuting and development patterns for years.
"I continue to be amazed by the shortsightedness of the federal government," said Fairfax County Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee). "Whatever they do is 'here and now.' They seem to have no interest in trying to plan for the rational development of a sustainable community. I suppose if they had the chance to relocate to the moon, they would."
Sparking the most recent round of complaints were reports last week that the FBI is moving its Northern Virginia field office from Tysons Corner to Prince William County. The FBI says it needs more space and that the site near Manassas is less expensive and more secure than locations closer in. But some FBI employees note that it will result in higher commuting costs for many of the office's 300 workers and encourage some of them to move farther out. Agents will have to make long trips on overloaded Interstate 66 for their cases and for meetings with prosecutors in Alexandria, they say.
The move is reminiscent of another, far bigger dispersal: the Pentagon's transfer of 30,000 military and civilian employees from Arlington County, the District and other close-in locations to installations farther out, mostly to Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax. Rather than being near Metro, the jobs, which will be followed by thousands of related contractors, will be in an area with crowded roads and little transit. Also getting thousands more workers are two other posts on the region's fringe, Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and Quantico Marine Base in Prince William.
Local officials see a similar lack of federal foresight in the rejection of a proposal to build a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport underground through Tysons Corner instead of on an elevated track. Tunnel proponents said it would help achieve a key goal of Fairfax leaders to transform the county's downtown into a walkable urban center, but federal transit officials discouraged Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) against the tunnel, saying the delays and higher costs it would bring would imperil federal funding.
Critics also point to the consolidation of the Food and Drug Administration outside the Capital Beltway in White Oak and the transfer in the 1990s of the headquarters of the Naval Air Systems Command from Arlington to Southern Maryland. But not all agencies are moving outside the Beltway. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms recently built new headquarters near the New York Avenue Metro station.
Other regions also must contend with the consequences of military relocations and other federal actions, but the dominance of the federal government in Washington makes the area uniquely dependent on it. Ideally, officials say, this could be a plus, if the government used its sway to drive unified planning across a region divided among three jurisdictions.
That happened to some extent in the 1990s, planners and officials say, when President Bill Clinton issued an executive order that federal agencies try to locate within downtowns. By dispersing agencies outward, critics say, the federal government is effectively undermining its $10 billion investment in Metro.
"Six or eight years ago, [the federal government] was moving in the right direction . . . but now you have a couple major decisions that undo" past successes, Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette (D) said.
At the heart of the federal government's justification for the recent decisions are cost savings and security. The Pentagon says the moves chosen by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission will save $49 billion nationwide, partly by moving employees out of leased space such as in Crystal City. Moving out of such close-in locations as Arlington and Alexandria to such closed posts as Belvoir also complies with new military requirements for 82-foot setbacks to guard against truck bombs.
Asked about local complaints, a Pentagon spokesman pointed to the commission's final report, which acknowledged local concerns that "quality of life could be reduced because of transportation problems such as increased traffic, lack of public transportation and increased commuting times, with the attendant issues of air pollution and increased fuel consumption." The report went on to say that "these concerns were carefully weighed and considered, but in the final analysis the commission found they did not collectively rise to the level of a substantial deviation" from other priorities.
The General Services Administration, which oversees the siting of federal facilities, mentions in its regulations the need to consider transportation access, environmental impact and a "community's economy, sense of place and social fabric." But security concerns apply even to agencies unrelated to the military or law enforcement -- all new federal buildings are supposed to have a minimum setback of 50 feet, though exemptions are possible in urban areas, depending on the agency's function.
Critics say that although security concerns are understandable in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the recent moves go too far. They point out that other countries have found ways, from traffic restrictions to building design, to keep government buildings downtown in their capital cities.
"There seems to be a perception that federal agencies, no matter what they do, need to be protected," said Ronald F. Kirby, a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "Rather than mix in and have your offices spread around with other activities, it's, 'Let's all get together and build a fortress someplace, and no one can get near us.' "
Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said many of agencies being moved to Belvoir are obscure entities and hardly obvious targets. "The terrorists don't know who's in what office building, and even if they knew, they couldn't locate them because of all those acronyms," he said. "The security thing is overblown. It's not tempered by any measure of common sense."
George Vradenburg, a former America Online executive who is organizing a major regional planning exercise, said that the head of the GSA's buildings department had remarked at a recent conference that the agency would be willing to include local officials on the panel that makes siting decisions. But Vradenburg said nothing has come of that so far.
Some say the concerns over the federal dispersal are exaggerated. Other than the military relocations, there is little sign of a general outward move by other federal agencies, said Matthew J. Klein, president of the Akridge development company, which has federal tenants in several of its buildings. "Washington is the center of government operations, and my sense is that people still want to be closer to that center," he said. "Last I checked, no one was moving from the White House or Capitol Hill."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) disputed the inclusion of the Tysons tunnel decision as an example of federal narrow-mindedness. Fairfax officials were initially in support of an aboveground route for the Metro through Tysons, he said, and when local officials recently decided a tunnel was better, federal officials simply told them that it would be difficult to change plans. He agreed, however, with criticisms of the military relocation, which he called a "horrendous land-use decision."
Particularly aggravating to some about the transfers to Belvoir is that the Army has so far ruled out putting any of the elements at a huge, underused GSA warehouse in Springfield, a couple of miles from the post and adjacent to a Metro station. The Army says it is too complicated for it to get control of the site.
Other local officials hold out the hope that the relocations to Belvoir, which are supposed to be done by 2011, won't be carried out fully. It's possible, they say, that the road upgrades needed for the move will be found to be too costly or that a new defense secretary will soon replace Donald H. Rumsfeld, a top proponent of consolidating employees on posts.
But Pentagon spokesman Chris Isleib said it was unrealistic to expect a pullback on transfers. The relocation "is a matter of law, and we remain committed to it," he said.