By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; B01
The Defense Department has shirked responsibility to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation improvements required as it transfers thousands of workers to Fort Belvoir, Fort Meade and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, according to a congressionally mandated study released Monday.
The Pentagon's decision to add tens of thousands of commuters this year to a region that has the most congested transportation system in the United States has placed an unfair burden on state and local governments, the study says.
"We here in Northern Virginia have been saying that for quite some time," said U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). "We want to be supportive of the Pentagon, but at the end of the day, we need the resources to mitigate the impact."
The report recommends that Congress consider a one-time allocation of new money or reprogram unused stimulus money to pay for transportation improvements.
"The process that the Pentagon has used is not fair and not appropriate," said U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who requested the study. "Now you've got an independent validator saying to the Pentagon that this doesn't make sense. We're going to try to use this to make the case that there has to be federal responsibility."
The report, by the National Academy of Sciences, reviewed the transportation impact of 2005 decisions by the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission. The commission decided to close some installations and transfer military and civilian personnel.
"We just don't have the resources to add capacity when they just drop these things out of the sky," said Ron Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "There are places in the region where this development would have been much more welcome. The DoD people are going to be caught in traffic as much as anybody else, so they had an incentive not to turn a blind eye to this."
Although the closings were nationwide, nowhere has the impact on transportation been more profound than in the Washington area. Citing security concerns, the Pentagon relocated thousands of jobs from inner-hub locations served by public transit to areas accessible only by car.
"Local roads serving Fort Belvoir, [the Bethesda medical center] and Fort Meade could approach, if not experience, lengthy queues of stalled traffic," the report says.
Predicting a "near perfect storm of problems," the report chastises the Pentagon for focusing primarily on problems within its bases without sufficient regard for the effects of decisions on surrounding areas.
"The affected communities did not have time, especially under current economic circumstances, to locate funds . . . to support the new demands on their transportation networks," the report says.
Under its guidelines, the Pentagon isn't required to help pay for transportation improvements surrounding a military base slated for growth unless its actions would cause congestion to double.
"If you're in the wheat fields of Kansas, that may make sense," Connolly said. "But we already have a five-hour commute, so that's an impossible and absurd standard."
Maryland has invested $135 million in transportation improvements and says it needs an additional $300 million to handle BRAC-related traffic. Virginia last week said that almost $1 billion would be spent in a public-private partnership to build high-occupancy toll lanes on Interstate 95, which will be heavily affected.
Expansion at Fort Belvoir, the largest employer in Fairfax County, is expected to add 13,000 commuters by the end of the year. An additional 6,400 commuters will work at an Alexandria office complex known as the Mark Center.
Of the 30 major highway and transit projects deemed necessary to accommodate the new traffic, just four have been fully funded, the report says.
Connolly, Warner and two other Virginia Democrats - U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. and U.S. Sen. James Webb - last month sent the Pentagon a list of road and transit improvements required to serve the Mark Center.
The congressmen want the Defense Department to waive its rules to pay $20 million for road improvements at the Mark Center site and to subsidize local transit. They asked that the opening be delayed until the upgrades are completed.
An Army spokesman said that the improvements are under review and that the Army would meet its legal obligations. The report issued Monday suggests that the Pentagon go beyond that to pay for transportation improvements "on a par with costs imposed on private developers."
"If you were a developer and you came to those two counties with a proposal to add 25,000 jobs, even if we considered it, we would say, 'You're going to be required to do a lot of work to handle traffic,' " Connolly said. "But the federal government, in the BRAC process, is obligated to do nothing outside of the base."
The Pentagon selected the Mark Center because it was zoned to accommodate the anticipated workforce. Had a private developer signed the lease, Fairfax would have required that the developer pay for significant transportation system upgrades.
"We do that routinely throughout the region," Kirby said. "DoD should be treated just like any other developer."
Maryland officials were exultant when the BRAC decisions added tens of thousands of jobs to several state bases, notably the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and Fort Meade. But they have been hard-pressed to find money for infrastructure improvements to handle the 45,000 to 60,000 newcomers, when contractors and service jobs are factored in.
Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), said the county needed an additional $38 million to pay for Metro improvements and $58 million for intersection reconstruction to accommodate 2,200 new workers and half a million hospital visitors at Bethesda.
"In some parts of the country, BRAC may mean a lot of new people," Lacefield said. "But here it's just a revised commute for most people. We may not be getting a lot of new taxpayers."
The Fort Meade area anticipates an influx of residents, but many people being transferred there from jobs in Virginia have said they plan to commute.
"These are good problems to have, and we're very appreciative of the jobs, especially now," said Andy Scott, special assistant to Maryland's secretary of transportation, Beverley K. Swaim-Staley. "But while BRAC may bring new efficiencies for the Department of Defense, it's bringing new expenses for the state."
The $135 million Maryland has spent has been spread across smaller projects, mostly improvements to intersections near Fort Meade and the Bethesda center. But other projects - including new commuter bus service that would have helped reduce the increased number of cars - were scrapped because of a lack of money.
"Probably an additional $300 million needs to be spent just to meet immediate needs," Scott said. "It's a triage approach now, and at this point we're just chipping away on what we can. We're not in a position to make new [funding] commitments for BRAC."
The report says that about $786 million in highway projects is needed to accommodate workers arriving at Fort Meade by September and the adjacent National Security Agency.
"The addition of 22,000 commuters - many relying on the congested interstates, freeways and parkways in the region - suggests that these routes, which already perform poorly in peak periods, will become even more clogged with traffic," the report says.