WASHINGTON - Appearing before stern-faced members of the panel that will decide the fate of thousands of American jobs this year, Washington leaders asked them yesterday to reject plans to close military installations in the nation's capital - most notably the flagship Walter Reed Army Medical Center - and transfer some of those jobs to facilities in Maryland suburbs.
The hearing on Capitol Hill opened two days of lobbying from officials hoping to stave off the possibility of everything from millions of square feet of vacant office space in Northern Virginia to the loss of a New Jersey county's largest employer and high-tech hub.
The stakes are high for the nation's capital. According to a Pentagon analysis of the impact of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission changes on cities, Washington would lose 14,459 jobs, more than any other metropolitan area in the country, while the Baltimore area would gain 7,277, second only to the Columbus, Ga., area.
Yesterday's hearing focused on cuts in Washington, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Five busloads of veterans, employees and community members wearing matching yellow "SaveWillowgrove.com" T-shirts drove three hours from the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base outside of Philadelphia. People from Tobyhanna Army Depot, just southeast of Scranton, Pa., wore "Keep the Best!" T-shirts. And Pittsburgh-area supporters wore yellow T-shirts reading: "Pittsburgh: Land and More."
Almost all of the comments from Washington officials focused on Walter Reed - a nearly century-old hospital that has a legacy as the rehabilitation center for the wounded, including many Iraq war amputees, and the care center for sitting presidents and dignitaries.
The commission is weighing whether Walter Reed's specialty inpatient services should be relocated from Northwest Washington to a new $1 billion building across the Maryland line at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, which offers 300 additional beds and more research space. Walter Reed's more general inpatient care and outpatient services would transfer to another proposed hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va.
During the hearing, commission member Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's top weapons tester under President Bill Clinton, argued against breaking Walter Reed up, saying it's a "premier joint medical platform" serving soldiers from branches other than the Army.
Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams characterized both Bethesda and Fort Belvoir as "inadequate," in a written statement submitted to the commission. He mentioned traffic congestion and parking difficulties at both locations, and noted that no onsite inspections or planning has been conducted to assess the true costs.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from Washington, D.C., said that the hospital is a critical part of the capital's terrorism response in the event of mass casualties.
"Walter Reed is now located within 5 1/2 miles of the White House and 6 1/2 miles of the Capitol," she said. "Were it in Bethesda, that is a 50 percent greater distance and that is significant if you remember the way gridlock crippled the capital after Sept. 11."
Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development, said in a telephone interview after the hearing that Washington leaders aren't looking toward the future. He said that rather than focus on the value of Walter Reed's more than 100 acres of prime real estate in Northwest Washington, they are lobbying against a move of a few miles.
"Those jobs are just going across the border," said Melissaratos, who also leads Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s two-year-old council to protect the state's military jobs. "Employees will continue to live where they're living and just commute to Bethesda. It's a moot point."
But both Williams and Norton argued that the Pentagon has "woefully" underestimated the cost of environmental cleanup at Walter Reed.