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

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010; C01

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.

L. Jerry Hansen, deputy assistant secretary of the Army, who is overseeing the job shifts, said the Pentagon and local governments are working to ensure that commuters don't get stuck. He cited plans for shuttle bus service, slug lines, flexible work hours, ride sharing, carpooling, transportation vouchers, van pools and teleworking. He expects details by mid-summer.

The Defense Department also might give local governments more money than now allowed by federal law to help pay for road work, he said. And the Army has donated some land to make improvements to ease commutes to and from Fort Belvoir.

"I am convinced we will make this work," Hansen said.

A grueling commute

Driving Route 1 is both an art and a science.

Catherine Voorhees has been making the journey between the Mount Vernon area and Woodbridge with her children for gymnastics the past five years. She knows that a simple fender bender can turn the 35-minute afternoon trip into a two-hour nightmare, to say nothing of what is coming next year when 12,000 more employees descend on Fort Belvoir, nearly 50 percent more than are working there now.

So she plans the trips very precisely. The storefront gym in Woodbridge is about 17 miles south of West Potomac High School, off Route 1 in Fairfax, and Voorhees, a patent attorney, has allotted 90 minutes to get there.

John, a sixth-grader, and his mother -- and often with sister Marien, a high school freshman -- make the trip at least four times a week just as rush hour is beginning at the base about 3:30 p.m. "Our goal," Voorhees says, "is to beat the traffic."

As they drive on, the speed limit is 45 mph, but the family's van is clocking 15. At 4:15, Voorhees pulls into a shopping center minutes from their destination and heads off for a snack before gymnastics begins at 5 p.m. The trip worked well this time, but it's always a gamble, Voorhees said.

"I really wish I had a flying car sometimes."

Col. Jerry Blixt, base commander at Fort Belvoir, and Col. Mark Moffatt, the Army Corps of Engineers official overseeing construction on the base, are working on solutions. About 26,000 people commute to the base each day, but come September 2011, there will be 12,000 more, who would face lengthy commutes if they tried to use public transportation instead.

Bus service from the Franconia-Springfield Station on Metro's Blue Line takes 40 minutes and makes 14 stops before reaching Belvoir, Moffatt said. "That's unacceptable after a 30-minute Metro ride," he added.

Many, if not most, will come by car. Moffatt hopes to persuade some to telecommute part of the week while still giving them enough face time with bosses and co-workers.

"It's a culture change," he said. "That is the problem." Then he amended that: "Not the problem. That's the challenge in it."

Transforming Arlington

In many ways, Arlington County is ground zero for the job shifts.

Andrea Y. Morris and her staff at Arlington's base realignment office are trying to find a way to keep the area vibrant, even though thousands of defense workers will move to new locations in the next 16 months. Morris and her staff play many roles, trying to help workers find new jobs so they don't have to move while searching for office building tenants to replace those leaving. The effect on the Crystal City indoor shopping center is a concern. "These are the people who buy lunches, do their dry cleaning. The impact is huge," Morris said.

If history is any guide, when the Defense Department transfers jobs, only about 25 to 30 percent will change their commute or move to a new home to keep the same job. The majority look for something else closer to home.

Arlington officials see opportunity despite the adversity. While they cope with the departures, they also are working on a 50-year plan to remake Crystal City into a more walkable, livable community.

"Our focus is to sustain our economy," Morris said.

During a recent job-hunting session, several government employees explained how the shift is affecting them. The workers are among the hundreds who regularly seek help from Arlington's BRAC Transition Center inside the Shops at Crystal City. (All asked that their identities be withheld because they don't want their bosses to know of their job hunts.)

One woman is a military career counselor who hopes to join the civilian workforce, perhaps nearby. A man who works as civilian business analyst commutes from Upper Marlboro to Crystal City, but his job is moving to Quantico. One military retiree working for military law enforcement commutes from Baltimore but would have to follow his job south to Quantico or to a telecommuting center in Stafford County. He wants something closer to home.

"The biggest concern is we don't know if the roads can handle it," he said. "It doesn't matter what time of day."

Tough choices

The dispute over the Winkler Nature Preserve that slowed the search for a way to bring 6,400 new commuters to the Mark Center, a large office building off Interstate 395 has left the Virginia Department of Transportation searching for an alternative. Hundreds of residents, along with Moran, complained about the potential harm to hundred-year-old trees, thousands of native plants and row upon row of wildflowers at the preserve.

One of those looking for a solution is Tom Fahrney, tapped three years ago to head Virginia's response to the base closings. At a recent meeting he led in Alexandria, he and his colleagues spoke of tough choices: Bring cars off the interstate directly into a secure garage; bring in workers by bus; or build that off-ramp into the preserve.

Kathleen M. Burns, who lives in Alexandria, said residents had little opportunity to question the moves.

"This is the Imperial Army, accountable to no one. This is Julius Caesar marching through a neighborhood," she said.

Said Fahrney: "We are just here trying to find a solution to a problem."

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