Worries grow about Defense Department base traffic

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 8:06 PM

Unless the schedule changes, crucial parts of the region's transportation network won't be ready to handle the demand from commuters converging on new employment centers this year as part of the Defense Department's base realignment program.

Several of the locations are far from major transit hubs, and the moves are scheduled to take place by Sept. 15.

"That's virtually tomorrow in terms of making [transportation] enhancements," said Joseph M. Sussman last month as a task force he chairs released a report criticizing the plan to send thousands more commuters to sites in the Washington suburbs.

"The regional transportation system is already strained under existing traffic volumes" he said. "Adding tens of thousands of commuters implies that conditions can only worsen."

The congressionally mandated report by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the federal government spend more money on easing the traffic impacts, but it's almost certainly too late for this fall's commuters.

In fact there never was enough time to accommodate the relocations to suburban locales such as Fort Belvoir and the Mark Center in Virginia and the National Naval Medical Center and Fort Meade in Maryland. The decisions by the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) were made in 2005.

Road and transit improvements designed to handle major increases in commuter traffic take much longer. Planners need to figure out what they can do; build public support; do formal studies on the traffic and environmental impacts; rebuild public support for revised plans; apply for funding; do preliminary engineering; then build the projects. Just ask anyone associated with the origins of Maryland's Intercounty Connector, if they're still alive.

It's the reality facing Tom Fahrney, who has coordinated the Virginia Department of Transportation's response to the base realignment program since 2007. In his dream world, he'd be on vacation when the redeployment is completed this September. And so would you.

But that's not likely to happen. What is more likely is that commuters who normally endure September Shock as other drivers return from summer vacations and crowd the roads will find that experience inflated. Typically, drivers adjust after a few weeks, sometimes selecting new routes or new departure times, and sometimes just renewing their emotional pact with traffic congestion.

Much has been done to prepare the transportation network. Virginia has committed about $400 million to address the impact of the redeployment, but there's still much to do. Today let's focus on the challenges confronting the commonwealth.

DOD Main Street

While Fahrney's range is statewide, an inevitable focus is on the Interstate 95/395 corridor, which serves the Pentagon, Fort Belvoir's main post and Engineer Proving Ground, the Mark Center and Quantico, five centers that will employ about 84,000 people.

A combination of state and federal money was designed to extend the Fairfax County Parkway and build new highway ramps in the Fort Belvoir area, as well as to add a fourth lane to I-95 along six miles between the parkway and Route 123. Elements of those projects are not yet complete.

Last month, Virginia revived its plan to create High Occupancy Toll lanes along I-95, though it sliced off most of the I-395 High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, north of the Beltway, from the original design. The HOT lanes project will add capacity to 29 miles of I-95. VDOT hopes to begin construction as early as next year. The project would take about three years to complete.

Northern nightmare

While announcing the revival of the HOT lanes project, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton also moved to address a BRAC problem north of Belvoir that looms large in Fahrney's nightmares about September. Connaughton said Virginia will build a ramp from the HOV lanes on I-395 to Seminary Road in Alexandria, connecting with the Mark Center.

Two office towers at the Mark Center will be the work site for 6,400 defense employees, compared to about 35,000 at Fort Belvoir and the proving ground site, but it's a transportation knot that has proved difficult to cut.

An initial plan to build an HOV ramp into the Mark Center was dropped because of environmental concerns. Some short-term changes will improve driving access and egress to the center, but even those will not be complete till the end of 2013.

"Employees will be in place while we're trying to construct these improvements," Fahrney noted. That will limit roadwork hours, so that the commute doesn't become even worse.

Construction of the HOV ramp that Connaughton announced last month isn't likely to begin till 2012.

While planners are encouraging employees to arrive by bus and carpool, or to telecommute. More than half of the employees are likely to drive.

This fall, morning traffic on I-395 near Seminary Road will be even worse, in both directions, Fahrney said. The effects will be felt on local roads as well as regional highways. "The real problem will be in the evening," Fahrney said. He predicted that Mark Center employees will spend 14 to 18 minutes getting from their parking garage to I-395, where they will attempt to merge with the already heavy homebound traffic.

Next time

"Traffic studies should have come before the decisions on relocation were made," Fahrney said, channeling some of the conclusions drawn by the research task force about the need for greater coordination between federal and local governments with regard to future base realignment programs.

The task force focused on time and money. It advised future base commissions to bear in mind that local governments may need more than a decade to develop their transportation plans.

The Defense Department also "should accept more financial responsibility for problems it causes," the task force concluded. Those problems affect all commuters, including those trying to get to work at the defense installations.

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