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Along with jobs, Fort Meade growth brings traffic concerns

CommutingRoad TransportationBusinessFort Meade (military base)Technology IndustryProductivity

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 tie-ups

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."

Van pools, car pools

Not that nothing has been done already.

Most recently, a $6 million project to widen Route 175 between Interstate 295 and Rockenbach Road in Anne Arundel was completed with help from the private sector early this month.

And Menser said that since its inception, the Regional Growth Management Committee has been working to mitigate the logistical and structural problems that come with more base employees driving and working in the area.

Five years ago, the committee determined 60 different "functional areas" in the region that would be affected. They've since narrowed those down to four key areas, Menser said: transportation, business and work force, family support and emergency services.

Addressing those four areas has required a creative approach, Menser said, including the creation of a Transportation Demand Management program, which has instituted telecommuting options, car and van pools, and staggered workday starting times to bring down peak-hour traffic.

As of September, according to Bob Leib, Menser's Anne Arundel-based counterpart on the committee, there were 254 employees using subscription buses, 855 using van pools, 1,182 using car pools of three riders or more, 36 riding the Intercounty Connector bus, and 278 taking shuttles to the base from surrounding Metro and MARC stations.

"You add all those individuals up and that's a lot of cars we've kept off the roads, a lot of cars we've eliminated coming into the gates," Leib said.

Another thing that has helped mitigate infrastructure demands has been, ironically enough, the poor economy of recent years, McLaughlin said.

The economic downturn slowed a large portion of development in the county, she said, allowing BRAC growth to fill a void as opposed to overwhelming the area.

"If BRAC had been hitting at maybe four years ago, at the peak of the housing boom, it would have been on top of what was already a very active development cycle," McLaughlin said. "It might have been more of a problem in terms of driving up housing prices even further, and certainly could have had some impacts on the schools."

Instead, McLaughlin said Howard has "benefited from the growth at Fort Meade, the BRAC growth, because it's helped counteract what's been soft in terms of other components during this downturn."

Dramatic impacts on housing and schools also aren't likely because of the county's cap of 1,800 new homes per year, which is the allotment that the school system bases its projections on, said Patti Caplan, a schools spokesperson.

"Our plans have not changed because of BRAC, because it has not changed how the county plans for development," Caplan said.

'Tough battle in Annapolis'

Transportation concerns, however, remain widespread.

"Because this growth took place in a quick time period, it makes the needs more acute," said County Executive Ken Ulman, who also serves on O'Malley's Blue Ribbon Commission.

And while impacts will be locally felt, fixing major road congestion is largely out of the county's hands, Ulman said.

"These challenges can only be solved by the state and federal government," Ulman said. "The counties can work together through planning, but the state needs to step up."

Whether that will happen is up for debate, as for years, the state's transportation fund has been tapped to pay for things unrelated to transportation, including covering deficits.

For two consecutive years, no new transportation projects have been put forward for construction, Fry said, and the state hasn't seen a significant increase in transportation funding since 1992. That's a major problem, he said.

"Transportation is a key component for economic growth and job creation, because businesses rely on mobility to move people, goods and services, and businesses are not as likely to expand or locate where it's difficult for them to move their goods or services or where it's not easy for their employees to get to their place of employment," Fry said.

Ulman said he believes O'Malley has "every intention" of putting forward a strong transportation package, in part because the governor understands the needs around Aberdeen and Fort Meade.

But Ulman isn't sure how the transportation budget is going to fare this year, nor is he confident money for infrastructure improvements will be found, he said.

"I think it's in for a tough battle in Annapolis," he said, adding that while the county has had success attracting private cyber contractors working with Fort Meade agencies to date, traffic congestion could diminish that success.

"If folks are sitting in traffic for hours and hours, jobs are going to go to other places in the country," he said. "…I believe even stronger now that leading the way in cyber security from a public sector and private sector standpoint is truly ours to lose."

Segall, for one, thinks the state will make sure the region gets the transportation funding it needs.

"I think belatedly, O'Malley's administration and state legislators are recognizing the fact that they've got to do something, and they have to do something tangible, and they'll do it," Segall said."Transportation is going to be something of a head wind, but I don't think it's going to be a mess. I don't think the state will let it be a mess."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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