By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008
The Bethesda naval hospital's multimillion-dollar expansion will get underway in the next two weeks as the military moves to consolidate medical operations in the area and create a world-class trauma center.
The Navy formally gave the green light to the project this week and, in a reversal, agreed to ask the Pentagon to consider paying for some road and Metro improvements. Initially, the Navy said that none of the $71 million in transportation projects around the National Naval Medical Center met the criteria for federal funding, but last week it signaled a willingness to change course.
The hospital's expansion, part of the Pentagon's base realignment and closure plan, known as BRAC, ultimately will double the number of annual patient visits to 1 million and will add 2,500 employees. Plans call for closing Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District and moving much of the care of wounded soldiers to Bethesda.
Construction could start as soon as next month on the facility, which Pentagon officials said will be "the crown jewel" of military medicine. The project is expected to be completed by late 2011, and medical operations will be transferred in phases beginning early that year.
The expansion plans have caused anxiety among Montgomery County's leaders, who are concerned that already-jammed roads will become gridlocked around the hospital, which is just north of downtown Bethesda and across from the National Institutes of Health.
The Navy has asked the Pentagon to approve funds to help with traffic control and improve access to the Medical Center Metro station, which would include building a new entrance in front of the hospital with high-speed elevators and a tunnel beneath Route 355. It is not clear whether Pentagon brass will approve the plans, but Montgomery officials say they are optimistic, now that the Navy has agreed to request funds.
Officials also have been concerned about possible traffic tie-ups during two years of planned construction, but the project's manager said the Navy had taken several steps to limit jams.
"We are very sensitive about not having a negative impact on our community, which has been very supportive of our campus," said Ollie Oliveria, who is managing the project for the hospital. "We cannot say enough for the great support they have given us, and we don't want to do anything to jeopardize that. They are patriots all the way."
Phil Alperson, who is coordinating Montgomery County's efforts, said the Navy and the county "want to work together on this to make it work as smoothly as possible. We all want it to work. You can't just plunk down 2,500 new employees and 500,000 new patient visits a year in the middle of an urban area and not address those traffic issues."
Oliveria said the first steps for the roughly two years of construction will be installation of trailers and fences that will be visible from outside the campus. In the next month, officials expect to cut a new entrance for construction traffic at the front of the hospital along Route 355.
The goal is to allow trucks and other construction equipment to enter and exit without affecting commuters and others trying to drive on and off the campus at the two entrances operating now.
"This will enable us to have as many as 50 trucks staged on the campus, and they will not back up" onto the public streets, he said. Officials also have worked out plans to compel the trucks to move on and off the base at times other than morning and afternoon rush hours, he said. Most will be coming off the Capital Beltway at Connecticut Avenue and then making a series of right turns to get onto the campus.
In addition to seeing increased truck traffic, neighbors are likely to hear some construction noise soon as demolition begins on a two-story building that will be replaced by the trauma center on the southern end of the campus.
Groundbreaking for buildings is set for June 25. That will cause a round of truck traffic to carry material from deep excavations off the campus.
"That will be the worst of what is going to happen," Oliveria said.
Most construction is expected to be completed by fall 2010. Medical equipment will then be transferred and installed.
Oliveria said officials hope they have foreseen most problems, but he said they expect some glitches in the next few weeks.
"We will work through those as fast as we can. We are building a hospital within a hospital while trying to continue to be a hospital," he said. "This is tremendously complex. This is not one where we can say we have made a mistake and let's go back. There is no going back."