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Road, rail work related to BRAC needs to accelerate [Commentary]

AmtrakMARC TrainAberdeen Proving Ground

Over the next several weeks in Aberdeen, a dozen and a half homes along Route 22 will be demolished to make way for the road to be widened.

No doubt more than a few lives were disrupted when the Maryland State Highway Administration began acquiring property to make way for a wider roadway, but protections are in place to ensure property owners are adequately compensated even as the interests of taxpayers – those of us paying for those houses – are protected.

Protections clearly were not in place, however, when another more massive disruption sparked by the actions of government was initiated nearly a decade ago. That disruption, commonly referred to by the ill-fitting pronounceable acronym BRAC, came about for good reasons, and was probably the right thing to do, but the reality that only now are houses being torn down along Route 22 is yet more evidence that there has been an unacceptable implementation disconnect.

(It's worth noting that the BRAC acronym is ill-fitting because it is named for the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which actually spells BCAR. This, however, hardly rolls off the tongue.)

The changes wrought by BRAC were brought about in the name of efficiency, the idea being that in the aftermath of the Cold War, and with the advances in military technology that have come into being in the decades since the World Wars, it made sense to evaluate the functions of all military installations, consolidate where possible, close where necessary and capitalize on facilities that are well-suited to research, testing or training.

For generations, the location of military installations and the granting of military contracts have been political plums, distributed all too often to districts of powerful legislators, rather than built at locations optimal for national security. To get around this problem, the BRAC process was designed by Congress to be at arms length from individual members of Congress. This gave BRAC a measure of efficiency not regarded as typical of the federal government.

Unfortunately, the efficiencies largely came to a halt when it came to making localized changes to help the BRAC process along, at least at Aberdeen Proving Ground. APG, established in 1917, was poised after the 2005 BRAC decisions, to undergo the most massive peacetime shift in its history. Many of the functions it had for decades would go away, but plenty more would take up residence, with the result being a substantial net expansion.

The moment the changes were announced, it became clear that local transportation networks along with other facilities, would need to be upgraded. To this end, almost nothing came to pass. A few construction projects that already had been the works were begun or wrapped up, notably an expansion of the Route 22 interchange with I-95 in Aberdeen. (The interchange project, oddly enough, was spurred on not by BRAC changes, but in the aftermath of the construction and success of the nearby Ripken Stadium and HEAT Center.)

To its credit, the county government, as well as leaders in the City of Aberdeen, were vocal about the need for money to upgrade state roads as well as to improve commuter rail access to APG. To date, very little of this has come to pass. Planning money was allocated to provide a vision of a new, inviting train station complex for Aberdeen to replace the dystopic MARC-Amtrak station that's been in place for years.

Slowly, the wheels seem to have turned just enough that an expanded Route 22 leading to one of the post's main gates is being funded to the tune of several million dollars (at $7 million to $10 million per intersection between I-95 and the APG gate, the cost could run as high as $50 million).

This glacial movement is hardly a reason to declare mission accomplished. Substantially more needs to be done, most notably with regard to improved rail transportation. It's important to keep in mind that, while the BRAC changes officially were completed more than a year ago on the federal government side of the operation, many military contractors have been holding off on hiring at APG until federal budget fights are resolved. County officials have noted that facilities constructed to house contractors on post sit nearly empty.

More people will be coming to APG, presuming the federal government doesn't decide to close up shop and slash military spending, and much more needs to be done to bring the local transportation network up to a standard that prevents Aberdeen from becoming more of a traffic bottleneck.

If anything, the limited progress that can be seen along Route 22 should serve as a reminder as to how much still needs to be done.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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