When the federal government announced in 2005 that thousands of military personnel and defense contractors would be transferred to Fort Meade, local officials drafted a list of $1.1 billion in roadway improvements needed to accommodate the growth.
In 2009, the Department of Defense identified six of those projects, totaling $671 million, as “critical and immediate” needs because of Base Realignment and Closure restructuring.
But as the Sept. 15 deadline nears for the BRAC personnel moves, most of those projects have been delayed at least until 2020 because of a lack of funding. Federal and state governments have contributed just $46 million for improvements.
“I laugh about it because otherwise I would cry,” said Bob Leib, Anne Arundel County’s BRAC coordinator and co-chairman of a regional committee planning for the impact of Fort Meade’s expansion. “There are absolutely no resources at the federal or state level of any magnitude that could approach solving this issue.”
The expansion of Fort Meade has the potential to bring new people to a widespread area. The base covers eight square miles just east of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, but its site in western Anne Arundel is also near communities in Howard and Prince George’s counties.
The BRAC moves will eventually boost local economies, state officials say, but with the deadline almost here, residents are worried about increased traffic and benefits to local businesses that haven’t materialized.
Part of the problem stems from uncertainty about how many people are coming to the area.
BRAC is bringing 5,800 direct jobs to Fort Meade by Sept. 15 — military officials say most of those employees have already moved — but that’s just a portion of the expected growth. The National Security Agency and other groups housed at the base are expanding, while facilities are being built for the new U.S. Cyber Command, which will coordinate federal information security. The Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee estimates that more than 26,000 new jobs are coming to the base by 2015, and thousands more contractors are expected to move in nearby.
All told, county officials say they are planning for more than 40,000 new people in the region between 2007 and 2015.
Bert Rice, Fort Meade’s director of transformation, said it’s too soon to know exactly how many people will come. But he agreed with the planning committee’s assessment of the area’s infrastructure needs. He blamed the lack of funding on the “dire situation” of the state and federal budgets.
“We’re not trying to be narrowly focused, but we sort of have to look inside [the base] first,” he said.
Fort Meade resembles a small city, complete with schools and auto repair shops. But to get to the fourth-largest military installation in the country, most drivers travel Maryland Route 175, an already overflowing road that is just two lanes wide in some places.
The numbers of cars using 175 each day is expected to jump dramatically from 2007 to 2015, growing from 26,000 to 45,000, according to the State Highway Administration.
Recognizing the limited resources for road improvements, planners shifted their focus to mass transit. Local officials have been encouraged by the impact on traffic so far and the relatively small number of new employees who have applied for parking spaces at the base. But local officials are still warning that the expansion could cause a 15-minute increase in commute times for anybody using 175.
Fort Meade officials said the expansion will have a “minimal impact” on transportation in the area, citing the relatively low impact this summer. But some residents and business owners said they have noticed an uptick, and they expect it to get worse as the summer lull ends.
Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold said the base’s expansion, without the funding, will leave more people “stuck in their cars,” hurting productivity and the quality of life.
The renovation and widening of Route 175, at a cost of nearly $300 million, made the unfunded list of “critical and immediate” needs. Also included was a similar revamp of Maryland Route 198, which connects the BW Parkway with the southern side of Fort Meade, as well as several intersection improvements.
State officials are taking a “triage approach” to addressing the problem, said Andy Scott, a BRAC liaison for the Maryland Department of Transportation. They have focused on encouraging telework and creating carpools, vanpools, subscription bus services and shuttles to MARC trains and Metro lines. When the Maryland Transit Administration adjusted the MARC Penn Line schedule this year, officials said some of the changes were to accommodate growth at Fort Meade and farther north at Aberdeen.
Officials do expect that upgrades to several intersections on 175 — funded with the $46 million in federal and state money — will improve the situation once they are finished next summer.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who is overseeing the state’s response to BRAC, called the allocation a “sizable investment in light of the very difficult economic times.”
“Will it eliminate delays? No,” Brown said. “But it will help alleviate the problem.”
Charisse Bembrey expected the BRAC moves would bring both traffic and new business. But while she has noticed the traffic, she hasn’t seen an increase in customers.
“It’s become a very busy area,” said Bembrey, the owner of a Caribbean grocery store on 175. “And trust me, they’re driving past. Wherever they’re going to, it’s not exactly right here in Odenton. Not at this point. We’re suffering.”
Local businesses are worried that the focus on public transportation may hurt them. Commuter trains don’t stop at shoe stores during the ride home or restaurants at lunchtime.
Others are more optimistic about BRAC’s impact, citing the massive job infusion in a rough economy. Officials predict the Fort Meade expansion will have a $1 billion annual economic impact on the region.
“In general, it’s still a good thing for business,” said Claire Louder, president of the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce. “The impact is just going to be slower than we expected.”
That slowness is due to the recession, Louder said. While new employees were originally expected to move to the area, they have been reluctant to sell their homes in other parts of the region because of the drop in real estate values.
The delay in workers moving to the area has been positive in one way, officials said: It has given officials more time to plan infrastructure improvements.
“We’re really going to have to buckle down now,” said Jean Friedberg, Howard County’s regional transportation coordinator. “I don’t think there’s any debate in terms of what projects are needed, or even what they’re going to cost. It’s a matter of getting that money and putting that money to work as soon as possible.”