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A Costly Shuffle
In this region, the military realignment hailed by political leaders is more a matter of job relocation than job creation. Although the economic benefits might be questionable, the strains in store for roadways are beyond doubt.

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Heralded as an economic boon, the Pentagon's base realignment plan will be an expensive game of musical chairs for the Washington region, with more than 90 percent of the region's 30,000 new military jobs coming from somewhere else around the Capital Beltway.

Political leaders, especially in Maryland, rejoiced two years ago when the Pentagon recommended consolidating thousands of military and civilian jobs at the region's bases. Now those leaders, concerned about strain on an already stressed road network, are scrambling to come up with billions of dollars in road and other infrastructure improvements needed for the job shifts coming in 2011.

Although a short-term boost is expected for the construction industry -- which will be building $7 billion in new roads, offices and hospital facilities for the base expansions -- the long-term economic benefits to the region are "clearly not of a scale you would expect given this amount of movement," said Stephen S. Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.

"We're mainly moving people around."

In some cases, the workers will arrive long before road projects are finished, leaving congestion that could stretch for miles. "The bulk of the jobs are coming in the next three to four years," said Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, who is preparing for a traffic onslaught in Bethesda and Anne Arundel County. "In transportation planning terms, that's tomorrow morning."

Such forecasts have had a sobering effect on local officials, particularly in Fairfax County, where more than 19,000 workers, and their cars, will arrive in three years. "Clearly, it's a tremendous economic boost for Fort Belvoir," Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said. "But now, looking at reality, it's going to be a tremendous amount of congestion until they get the infrastructure in place."

Fort Belvoir is gaining more jobs than any other military installation in the country, and 95 percent of those moving to the Army post are coming from offices in Rosslyn, Reston, Bethesda and, particularly, Crystal City.

"What you're talking about is 19,000 jobs that are already here, if you're talking about the national capital region," said Donald N. Carr, a spokesman for Fort Belvoir.

Similarly, the vast bulk of the 5,700 government jobs moving to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel are coming from elsewhere in the region, largely from Northern Virginia, said Col. Kenneth McCreedy, the post commander. Of as many as 2,500 additional medical and hospital workers headed to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, almost all will come from the closing of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District.

Area leaders have also touted a "multiplier" effect from the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure that is expected to generate more than 30,000 private-industry defense jobs. But planners suspect that many of these jobs will come from elsewhere in the region, as well.

Although Fort Belvoir and Fort Meade will benefit, "much of this impact from BRAC relocations into the area comes at the expense of the rest of the Washington metropolitan economy," two research institutes associated with GMU concluded in a July report. Arlington County and Alexandria together are losing more than 17,000 jobs and are seeking state aid to cushion the blow.

Initial predictions for housing gains and shifts in school population might not materialize, as surveys show that many workers will simply change their commute rather than uproot from homes and schools.

If the economic consequences are questionable, the transportation consequences are not.

Thousands of jobs are moving from such close-in locations as Crystal City and Rosslyn to outlying areas with limited public transit. "Those jobs are now in places served by Metro and bus services, whereas Belvoir doesn't lend itself to Metro and buses," Carr said.

One 2005 study estimated that 84,900 daily car trips would be added to the area's highways by 2015.

Myriad road projects are needed to accommodate the altered traffic flow.

Fairfax County officials estimate that up to $1.5 billion in transportation improvements are needed at Fort Belvoir, including finishing the Fairfax County Parkway connector. In Maryland, transportation officials say $300 million is needed to rebuild a five-mile stretch of Route 175 by Fort Meade, among other projects. Montgomery County officials are pressing the state for more than $70 million in projects to widen Wisconsin Avenue and improve other roads to accommodate a doubling in visitors to the Bethesda hospital.

Even so, major road projects can take eight to 12 years to come to fruition, including planning, budgeting and construction phases, Maryland's Porcari noted.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who is leading a study of BRAC's impact, will present a final action plan Monday and make recommendations this month for projects that should be added to the state budget. Like Virginia leaders, he is counting on the federal government for help.

"The congestion is real," said Moran, whose congressional district includes Fort Belvoir. "If the federal government is putting 20,000 people into an area that's congested, it's not unreasonable to expect the federal government to do something about it."

Officially, the Army and Navy have no obligation beyond improvements within the base, but federal law allows the military to pay its fair share for roads certified as necessary for national security. Several projects near Fort Belvoir have received that certification.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who has joined his state colleagues in pressing for federal aid, said Maryland and other jurisdictions will have to shoulder the majority of the load.

"The state competed strenuously to have this BRAC result," Hoyer, the House majority leader, said in an interview. "We're not in a position to say the federal government imposed something on us."

It is instructive to remember, some lawmakers say, that the area could easily have ended up losing jobs, as happened to many communities across the country.

"Maryland is overjoyed at what happened with the base realignment commission," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said in an interview.

"Our first line of defense was to make sure we didn't lose."

Visions of Gridlock

With a federal mandate to complete the job shifts by 2011, construction is not waiting for roads. At Fort Belvoir, the Army broke ground Nov. 8 on a 120-bed hospital on the old South Nine golf course.

In September, a bevy of military officials launched an even larger project, a 2.4 million-square-foot headquarters building for 8,500 employees of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Traffic is a particular concern for that project because it sits on Fort Belvoir's Engineer Proving Ground, an 800-acre tract west of Interstate 95 that lacks the road network serving the main post. Without road improvements, a study projected three- to four-hour traffic jams there.

Such traffic concerns prompted the Army and Northern Virginia leaders to begin looking at seven alternative sites for another agency, Washington Headquarters Services, which was slated to move to the proving ground.

Beneath the tent at the Geospatial-Intelligence groundbreaking, Fairfax County Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) was skeptical that roads would be ready for the onslaught of commuters.

"Until I smell the asphalt in the morning, I don't believe it," he said. "The bottom line is, everyone will be stuck in traffic if we don't make it happen. September 2011 is going to be here before anybody's ready, if we're not careful."

The base realignment recommendations approved by the White House and Congress in 2005 reflected then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's vision of consolidating the force and moving out of leased facilities onto more secure -- and ultimately less costly -- military installations.

But the money savings touted as part of the plan are diminishing. A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office says the costs will reach $31 billion, $10 billion more than estimated in 2005. And the expected savings have fallen to about $4 billion a year, 5 percent less than estimated.

In the Washington region, the most immediate economic impact will be felt in the construction industry. In Northern Virginia alone, BRAC-related building is expected to total $6.2 billion by 2011, with an estimated 23,600 jobs generated next year. Construction at the Bethesda hospital, which will add or renovate more than 1.6 million square feet of building space, is expected to total at least $839 million and employ more than 5,500 workers.

"In the short term, the construction is all the impact of BRAC, by and large," said Fuller, who said the effect probably will offset "what might otherwise have been a significant slow-down" in commercial building. The realignment will not necessarily translate to a boom in building new homes or schools, especially if workers don't move closer to their new jobs.

The Geospatial-Intelligence consolidation at Fort Belvoir, for example, will bring together 8,500 employees now spread among offices in Bethesda, Fairfax County and the Washington Navy Yard. About 30 percent of those workers live in Fairfax County, and another 16 percent live in Southern Maryland, making for shorter commutes in many cases, an agency analysis shows.

"I don't see that many of our employees moving," said Navy Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, the agency's director.

Similarly, more than half of the current workers at Walter Reed live in Montgomery County, where their jobs will be migrating. The Navy's draft environmental report released this month predicts that "no relocation of off-base personnel is expected as a result of the proposed action" and that there will be "no significant effects on demographics."

Yet Maryland's draft "action plan" for the hospital expansion that Brown advanced last month lists school construction projects in locales far from Bethesda, among them Clarksburg and Damascus.

The bigger effect, as at Fort Belvoir, will be cars lining up at the gates to get into the hospital campus on Rockville Pike. The expanded hospital could nearly double the number of patients and visitors to more than 980,000 a year.

"If the State of Maryland cannot provide adequate infrastructure to allow for safe and effective access to and egress from the campus . . . it will have a devastating effect on the region's growth, prosperity, emergency preparedness and livability," John Carman, chairman of Montgomery's BRAC committee, warned last month.

Fort Meade's growth would be more likely to bring new residents and schoolchildren than the other bases' shifts. The biggest tenant moving in, the Defense Information Systems Agency, is bringing 4,300 jobs from Falls Church and Arlington. More than 70 percent of the current workers live in Northern Virginia, and some aren't sure they want to move with their jobs to the Anne Arundel County post.

"The initial reaction by many was not favorable," said Defense Information Systems spokeswoman Lillie Cofield, who added that most probably will not make the decision for another year.

Maryland could also see a surge in home and school construction north of Baltimore when 9,000 government positions move from Fort Monmouth, N.J., to Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Elsewhere, Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County will gain about 400 workers, mostly from space leased in Arlington by the Air Force and Air National Guard headquarters. And more than 2,600 jobs will move down Interstate 95 to Quantico Marine Corps Base, with the consolidation of the Navy, Army and Air Force criminal investigative services.

The movement away from mass transit and the lack of federal money for infrastructure improvements make it incumbent upon the state governments to act, Hoyer said. "I think the state understands its obligations."

"It won't be easy," Lt. Gov. Brown acknowledged, "but we believe there's a will there. Sure there are a lot of challenges, but a lot of opportunity, too."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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