Crush of defense workers headed for N.Va. creates challenges, opportunities

Catherine Voorhees, a work-at-home patent attorney in Alexandria, Va., drives her children 17 miles to gymnastics practice in Woodbridge, Va., at least four times per week. The commute sometimes takes over an hour each way.
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Plans to move more than 19,000 defense workers to far-flung sites along Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia by fall 2011 are expected to add thousands of car commuters to the region's road network, further clogging an area with the nation's second-worst traffic.

State and local officials, running short of time and money, aren't certain they can do enough to widen roads, build exit ramps and make other fixes by the deadline mandated by the 2005 federal base realignment and closings plan. Making matters worse, many workers will move from public transit even as regional policymakers push for job growth near transit lines.

At least 13,000 jobs are slated to relocate from Crystal City, two subway stops from the Pentagon, to areas largely dependent on cars.

The changes will create at least two new choke points along the I-95 corridor near Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County and near Seminary Road in Alexandria.

The BRAC job shifts stem from post-9/11 worries by federal officials that the cluster of defense operations near the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport are at risk of attack, threatening national security.

Although the changes might ease security concerns, Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee). and other officials fear traffic tie-ups could be worse than expected. "There are 20,000 jobs being moved up and down that corridor. There may be 20,000 to 60,000 private-sector employees moving, too," McKay said.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), whose district is greatly affected by the transfers, predicted car commutes of up to five hours each day. Workers will be "forced onto our highways, hindering their productivity," he said.

But the job shifts could be good news in Prince William, Stafford and southern Fairfax counties, which are likely to benefit economically from more defense workers and the contractors who follow them.

State transportation officials in Virginia have been working for years on improvements near Fort Belvoir, south of Alexandria, and Congress recently approved funds for more.

The outlook is bleaker closer to Alexandria, where an environmental dispute stalled plans for an exit ramp to move 6,400 commuters in and out of the military's new Washington headquarters.

State officials believe an off-ramp is needed to handle the new traffic, but they scuttled plans after community outcry about the potential to harm the Winkler Nature Preserve, off Seminary Road. They are looking at nearby alternatives but doubt anything can be built by fall 2011.

"We are trying to make sure that . . . this does not have an impact on the entire transportation grid," said Sean Connaughton, Virginia's transportation secretary.

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