After two years of controversy and despite almost unanimous opposition from employes, residents and area politicians, the Defense Mapping Agency has completed its 17-mile, cross-county transfer of 550 nautical map-makers from Suitland to its land-mapping headquarters in the Brookmont section of Bethesda, near the Dalecarlia Reservoir.
The consolidation of hydrographic and topographic centers will reportedly save the Defense Department an estimated $3.3 million this coming year, $5 million a year in the future, and will streamline operations at the nation's military and intelligence mapping agency.
While an agency spokesman said the morale of the 550 transferred employes has been "surprisingly good, much better than expected," many are still grumpy about having to rise earlier, commute longer and spend more money on transportation. And Bethesda residents are grumbling about increased auto traffic from the commuters.
"My wife doesn't like the move at all, and I guess I'm a little more uptight after all the driving," said Mark Butler, a cartographer who lives in Waldorf. Since the move in mid-September, he has had to get up at 4:45 a.m. in order to get to Bethesda by 6:30 a.m.
Butler doesn't have to get up to work at 6:30 a.m., but commuting from Waldorf during rush hour would take at least two hours, and mapping agency employes are permitted to chose their working hours under a "flexible time" program. The program, adopted last year, allows employes to arrive between 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. and leave between 3 and 5 p.m.
Flexitime is something DMA's neighbors like also, since it spread out the traffic jams caused by more than 2,000 commuters, almost all arriving by car along narrow Sangamore Road, the entrance to the mapping agency. There is little public transportation available near DMA, although city trolleys once ran right by it out MacArthur Boulevard.
But the additional 550 employes transferred from Suitland, most of whom drive in separate cars, have made the traffic jams "worse than they were even before flexitime," says Myron Walker, former president of Potomac Valley League, one of some 40 civic groups that unsuccessfully fought the Suitland-to-Bethesda move.
One Sangamore Road resident, Anneliese Malkin, said, "I can barely get out of my driveway at 3 p.m. now. I have sat there for 20 minutes until that particular wave of cars has passed. Then there's a break of five or 10 minutes and another wave arrives.
"The traffic is awful and dangerous too because not all of Sangamore has sidewalks and many children bike and walk home from school, both at Brookmont Elementary and Western Junior High School."
However, Malkin says she "understands the predicament of the commuters, and I wouldn't want to be in their shoes either. None of us wanted this move. It is a residential area that's congested enough as it is."
Some 40 of the transferred DMA employes have bought homes closer to their new offices, which has shortened their commuting time although it doesn't help reduce traffic on Sangamore Road. But such moves are not possible for most mapmakers, who find Montgomery County too costly a place to live when they usually earn no more than $15,000 to $20,000.
No hydrographic employes were fired in the move, and only three refused to take jobs at the new location, an agency spokesman said. But almost 200 have left the agency since the move was first proposed in 1977, most to take new jobs or retire. Agency officials don't know how many of the departures were influenced by the move to Bethesda.
Officially, 97 hydrographic jobs have been eliminated by attrition, since the agency had done no hiring for two years, officials say. That alone is saving almost $2 million a year, they say. The agency also is saving at least $1.2 million a year in rent and services on the building it leased in Suitland.
There are no savings for the employes, however, says Bill Colligan, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employes, which represents the hydrographic employes.
"The inconvenience is tremendous," he said. "Commuting by bus or car is expensive, and it's too expensive for employes to move here."
"It makes no sense to me, moving to the most expensive county in the country," said cartographer Butler.
Bethesda was a pastoral place in 1942 when the newly created Army Map Service requisitioned a 40-acre farm to prepare wartime maps for the military. It expanded its Bethesda land holdings at the end of the war. The present buildings have easily absorbed the 550 new employes, say DMA spokesmen, bringing the Bethesda staff to 2,939, or about one-third of the 8,100 agency employes. It has about 40 field offices around the world, ranging from two-man staffs at military outposts to a large aerospace center in St. Louis and the mapping school at Fort Belvoir.
Larry Strewig, a cartographer who lives near Fort Washington in Charles County, a round-tip commute of 52 miles, says he now leaves for work at 5:40 a.m. in order to beat the morning rush hour. The drive takes him 45 minutes to an hour, and he's so tired when he comes home that he goes to bed by 9 p.m. "Forget entertainment and television," he said.
Strewig said he and his wife thought about moving but have "a nice place with one-half acre" and could never find anything like it they could afford in Montgomery County. The commute now takes Strewig more than twice as long as the 12-mile drive to Suitland and twice as much in car costs, and, he says, "I'm going to have to buy a new, more dependable car."
Not all of the hydrographic employes from Suitland commute buy car. More than 50 come by chartered bus and car-pool vans.
The bus, which carried 50 employes just after the movie was made in September, now shuttles about 35 employes daily between a Suitland shopping center and Bethesda.
Val Milazzo, a bus rider and one of the mapping agency's early employes, commuted by trolley and public bus to Bethesda site in 1946, then was transferred to Suitland in 1949. The chartered bus he takes now costs $60 a month. He spends at least two hours a day commuting but isn't complaining, he says, because when he took the trolley in 1946 the trip took more than an hour and a half each way.