U.S. Might Pay for Part Of Bethesda Road Work

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008

The Navy will ask the Pentagon to consider paying for some of the road and Metro improvements needed for the expansion of the Navy hospital in Bethesda, reversing a decision that had dismayed county and state leaders, according to a report being issued today.

Initially, the Navy concluded that none of the $71 million in transportation projects around the National Naval Medical Center met the criteria for federal funding. That prompted local leaders to accuse the Defense Department of shirking responsibility for the increased traffic congestion that could come.

The Navy's final environmental impact statement for the expanded hospital, scheduled for release today, says the Pentagon should evaluate whether some of the proposals can be certified for the Defense Access Road Program, which allots federal money for projects affecting national security. If the projects are certified, funding would have to be approved by Congress.

"That is a significant improvement from where we were before," Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said yesterday. "The question for us now is making sure that the amelioration is adequate to meet the challenges."

The hospital's expansion is part of the Pentagon's base realignment plan, known as BRAC, which calls for closing Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District and moving much of the care of wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan to Bethesda. Construction could start as soon as June on the new facility, which Pentagon officials say will be "the crown jewel" of military medicine. The expansion is expected to add 2,500 employees and double the number of visitors to the medical center.

The transportation projects that could receive federal money are adding or extending turning lanes from Rockville Pike and Jones Bridge Road into the medical center and building a pedestrian bridge or tunnel connecting the hospital to the Metro station across Rockville Pike.

However, the Navy continues to say that other projects -- including widening Rockville Pike and various improvements to Old Georgetown Road, Cedar Lane, Connecticut Avenue and Jones Bridge Road -- "do not readily meet the guidance or criteria" for Pentagon funding or DAR.

Nonetheless, local officials welcomed the Navy's willingness to consider some of the project.

"The fact they're putting it into DAR is good news," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. "It reflects an understanding that there will be an impact on the community. Of course, it's just a first step."

Phil Alperson, Montgomery County's BRAC coordinator, called the Navy's action "important" but warned that there are no guarantees that federal money will follow.

"It will take a long and winding road to actually get DAR certification, and there is no assurance at this point that we will succeed," Alperson said.

The Navy report includes no estimate on the costs of the improvements, noting that the Pentagon will have to determine "whether and how to fund the projects."

The county has rough estimates that the turning lanes would cost $33 million and a Metro tunnel more than $20 million, Alperson said

The expansion plan outlined in today's report would establish a new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, with a new building for inpatients, a center for those suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, housing for patients and their families, clinic and office space, and a parking garage.

The proposal in the report includes 1.1 million square feet of new construction and more than 500,000 square feet of renovated building space.

After a 30-day waiting period, the Navy will issue a final decision on how to proceed with the project.

Approval is largely a formality. The Navy last month awarded a $641.4 million design and construction contract to Clark/Balfour Beatty, a Bethesda-based joint venture.

Rear Adm. John M. Mateczun, commander of a joint task force overseeing military hospitals in the Washington region, said construction could start as early as next month but is more likely to begin in June.

The medical center commander, Rear Adm. Richard R. Jeffries, said construction is expected to move at a fast pace and expansion should be completed by late 2010 or early 2011.

He added that the hospital would work to make sure patient services are not disrupted. "You've got to be concerned about that," Jeffries said Wednesday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly renovated Mercy Hall, which includes 99 rooms for outpatients.

The emphasis will remain on providing care to wounded Marines and other service members, Jeffries said. "We will not do anything to compromise them," he said.

The Navy will post the final environmental impact statement on the Web today athttp://www.bethesda.med.navy.mil/Professional/Public_Affairs/BRAC/index.aspx.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company