Second in a two-part series
If you build it, they will come – and most will be in cars.
That's the reality facing planners at Fort Meade, the military installation in Anne Arundel County just east of the Howard County line that has seen major growth in recent years thanks in part to the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act.
The federal government moved entire agencies to the base as part of BRAC, and with them came their employees. Other growth at the base brought still more commuters.
Since 2005, the work force at the base has jumped from 34,000 employees to 56,000 employees, more than 10,000 of whom are Howard County residents. Companies that do business with the agencies also brought employees into the area.
So far, the influx of commuters has been manageable, and many have committed to using car and van pools, shuttles and other transportation options that don't involve driving themselves on to the base, local planners said.
"It seems to be that things are going quite nicely," said Marsha McLaughlin, director of Howard's department of planning and zoning. "I'm not hearing about major nightmares."
But local commuters may want to cross their fingers that remains the case.
According to many people who have been keeping an eye on development at the base, the growth there from BRAC is just the tip of the iceberg. By 2015, planners are projecting there will be 9,000 more employees at the base, putting the total work force at 65,000, nearly double what it was in 2005.
As more development comes online with the growth of the U.S. Cyber Command headquarters, they said, heavy traffic congestion and clogged local roads are likely to become more common in the region, especially if the state's transportation budget doesn't receive a shot in the arm this legislative session.
According to Kent Menser, a former commander of Fort Meade who is now executive director of the Howard County BRAC Office and co-coordinator of the Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee, a committee assessment determined it would cost $1.3 billion to bring the region's transportation infrastructure to the level needed to match the growth of Fort Meade. But only "something in the area" of $50 million has been allocated so far, he said.
Traffic congestion in the area is already apparent, some local commuters said, especially during busy travel times.
Aaron Santory, who lives in Columbia and started working on the base as an English teacher at Meade High School in August, said his morning commute, before rush hour, usually takes him no more than 25 minutes. But if he leaves school after 3 p.m., which is usually the case, it takes him closer to 40 minutes to get home, he said.
"Routes 32 and 175, my two main options home, can really back up at some points," Santory said in an email.
More broadly, Washington and Baltimore already have some of the most congested roadways in the country, in part due to years of cuts to Maryland's transportation budget, according to Donald Fry, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a member of Gov.Martin O'Malley's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding.
Continued growth at Fort Meade — which is expected to most affect traffic on routes 175, 32 and 198 and Interstate 295 — is only likely to exacerbate those problems, Fry said.
"It's way beyond time for Maryland to step up and make the effort to secure the revenue that's needed for us to keep our economic growth and job creation moving forward," Fry said. "…Particularly with respect to the fact that we have seen great growth from BRAC-related moves, both at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County and Fort Meade, that also adds to the need and demand for these types of investments."
Without major transportation investments soon, the economic benefits that should come with continued base growth will be undercut, said Morris Segall, president of SPG Trend Advisors, an economic and capital markets research and consulting firm in Baltimore that has kept an eye on the growth through sister company Sage Policy Group
"The fly in the ointment is that while BRAC has been a great boon for the state and for Howard County, the next challenge for the county and the state is to provide the improved transportation infrastructure," Segall said. "…It is going to have to be dramatically improved, or you're going to have major gridlock that will essentially choke off further economic growth."