Defense Department Will Pay for Turn Lanes as Naval Hospital Expands

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Department of Defense has agreed to pay for work on two turn lanes along Rockville Pike in hopes of easing predicted traffic snarls as the naval hospital in Bethesda absorbs the staff and patients from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Montgomery County officials said yesterday.

In response to pleas from commuters and traffic planners who foresee gridlock as the campus grows, the Navy obtained Pentagon permission to bypass the normal appropriations process and pay for the turn lanes out of existing funds. The plan, estimated to cost slightly more than $1 million, will lengthen the southbound left-turn lane into the National Naval Medical Center's North Wood Road gate and build a northbound left-turn lane into the grounds of the National Institutes of Health across the street.

The Navy must still identify funds for the project within its construction programs, and Pentagon officials are considering a request to help with much larger transportation improvements. But Montgomery leaders hailed the turn-lane project as a much-needed first step.

"I applaud DOD for recognizing that the success of the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda will be due in significant part to relieving traffic and congestion in the surrounding neighborhoods," Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said in a statement. "An especially positive element of this decision is that this particular project will not have to go through a cumbersome and lengthy process."

The Navy initially said none of the $71 million in transportation projects around the naval hospital met the criteria for federal funding, but in the spring 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 is projected to double the number of annual patient visits to 1 million and add 2,500 employees. Plans call for closing Walter Reed in the District and moving much of the care of wounded service members to Bethesda.

The Navy recommended to Defense Department officials that they approve funding for at least two transportation projects, the lane improvements and a much more ambitious addition to the Medical Center Metro station expected to cost $20 million to $25 million. That project, which could include building a new entrance with high-speed elevators and a tunnel beneath Rockville Pike (Route 355), is under review. A ruling on the Metro project could come late next month, Navy officials said, and would then go to Congress as part of the normal appropriations process.

In comparison, the Navy can proceed with the turn-lane improvement as soon as it allots the money from funds approved for road-building.

"Funding for anything in the DOD program is challenging these days," said David K. Oliveria, who is managing the project for the hospital. "We are fighting a war, and a lot of our resources, rightly so, are going toward the care of our wounded warriors. But I'm hopeful that we'll be successful in securing this funding."

Pentagon officials have described the upgraded Bethesda facility as the "crown jewel" of military medicine. The project, which broke ground last month, is expected to be completed by late 2011, and medical operations will be transferred in phases beginning early that year.

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