Commute could realign with base closings

Sun Staff

Like many federal workers driving from the Baltimore suburbs into Washington every day, Marshall Hudson picks his poison - the Beltway, New York Avenue or Massachusetts Avenue - based on the 7:15 a.m. radio traffic report.

On a good day, he gets to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in an hour - a dream commute compared with the one he would have if the Pentagon closes his office in Bethesda and moves it to Fort Belvoir, Va., as part of a nationwide shuffling and consolidating of military resources.

The shake-up could bring thousands of new jobs to Maryland and shift thousands of others out of state.

That has civilian Defense Department workers fretting. Some say they'll be forced to buy new cars, adjust their work schedules or even move across the state line to make their lives easier.

Others say they'll retire to avoid the hassle.

Change is a concept foreign to many federal workers in the Baltimore-Washington region. The concentration of defense contractors, military bases and government offices within an hour of the Pentagon has allowed many employees to climb the pay scale without the rootlessness that accompanies military life.

The base realignment proposal outlined this month could disrupt that for many workers - and not just in Maryland.

The plan, the first round of base closings in a decade, is projected to save $50 billion over 20 years. The Pentagon is recommending that 180 military installations nationwide be shut down, including 33 large bases. Hundreds of other installations would see staffing swell or shrink.

If Hudson's employer, which analyzes military satellite images, is relocated as recommended, he will have to leave his home in Bowie by 6 a.m. to avoid rush-hour congestion on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge crossing into Virginia.

New housing concerns

He worries that he wouldn't be able to afford a house near Fort Belvoir, 16 miles south of Washington, as nice or as large as the one that he lives in now with his wife and their 2-year- old son.

"For a lot of my co-workers who already live in Virginia, it's going to mean a shorter commute, and they're thrilled," said Hudson, 38, who writes the internal newsletter for the agency.

"For those like me, who live in Annapolis, Bowie or Rockville," he said, "they're going to have to consider changing their lifestyle or moving."

Many workers, both civilian and military, are reluctant to accept the possibility that their jobs would move. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission - or BRAC - is reviewing the Pentagon's proposal, which won't be final until the commission, President Bush and Congress sign off on it this fall.

Meredith Leyva, author of Married to the Military, said that that approach is unwise. As Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pointed out at a hearing last week, 85 percent of BRAC proposals become reality.

Leyva, a Navy wife who has moved seven times in eight years, recommends that people contact a real estate agent now if they live in an area where many are expected to leave. Base closings create "gluts" of homes on the market, and prices plummet.

Pentagon officials estimate that Maryland will gain about 6,600 jobs under the realignment proposal. Virginia faces a mixed picture: a net loss of about 1,600 jobs, despite the consolidation of other jobs at places such as Fort Belvoir.

'Busting at the seams'

Stephanie D. Henderson isn't sure who's coming or going, but she knows that the proposal would further cramp her lifestyle. When she first moved to Woodbridge, Va., more than a decade ago, her trip to meetings of the Fort Belvoir Officers' Wives Club took only 15 minutes.

Every year, it seems to get worse, and she said she expects to schedule an hour's worth of travel time before each meeting once the newcomers arrive.

"We're basically busting at the seams here," said Henderson, whose husband works at the post for a defense contractor. "They're putting up the houses as fast as they can."

Lou Brune, 50, one of Hudson's co-workers, plans eventually to move from Gaithersburg to one of those new homes, but not until his two children, ages 9 and 11, graduate from high school.

"We just don't want to disrupt their education," he said.

Warren Field of the Army Test and Evaluation Center in Alexandria, Va., doesn't expect any disruptions. He said he would rather retire than move to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County with his command, which tests soldiers' weapons and communications systems.

Three years ago, with his children grown, Field and his wife moved into a townhouse in Alexandria so that he could be a five-minute bus ride from his office and they could get rid of their second car.

He said he wouldn't give up that convenience or the skyrocketing value of his townhouse to move to Maryland.

Two years off

His colleagues who don't have the option of retiring, Field said, don't have enough information right now to make decisions.

The move, if it happens at all, is at least two years off, and Field said he isn't confident the destination will be Aberdeen.

"I'm not going to go wherever," he said.

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