Base realignment threatens to worsen ills linked to sprawl

Sun Staff

While officials in Maryland have publicly welcomed the prospect of gaining 6,600 federal jobs through the military base realignment proposed by the Pentagon, independent planners and activists say the move threatens to worsen the ills of suburban sprawl in the Greater Washington area, which includes Baltimore.

"This is a region that's already grappling with crushing traffic congestion and all of the associated problems, air pollution and other issues," said Don Chen, executive director of Smart Growth America, a national growth-management advocacy group based in Washington. "This would make it much more difficult for local governments to get control over those issues."

The Pentagon's proposal would move tens of thousands of jobs from the District of Columbia and its inner suburbs to outlying bases such as Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland - to communities far less accessible by public transportation and already straining to cope with the growth they are experiencing.

Moreover, there is unlikely to be much federal aid to accompany the shifts. In previous base realignments, the Pentagon has given affected communities $280 million in aid, and other federal agencies have provided $3 billion. But the bulk of the aid in the past has gone into helping to clean up and redevelop bases that are closed.

The costs of accommodating base expansion are generally left to local and state government. In Maryland, the cost of expanded roads and mass transit alone could easily be tens of millions of dollars.

The nation's capital and its neighboring states have weathered base closings and expansions before, but this one is potentially more disruptive because many job shifts are being made to satisfy new Pentagon regulations requiring that military workplaces be set back from streets, with secure parking areas, to shield them from potential terrorist attacks.

More than 20,000 jobs are being moved out of the district and its inner suburbs - away from offices readily accessible by the Washington area's Metro rail network, which transports 700,000 riders every weekday.

It's clear that the number of military and civilian jobs beyond the Capital Beltway would grow, where workers are less able to commute by mass transit, said David Robertson, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional planning agency.

"The federal government primarily is looking for what enhances the security of Department of Defense facilities and what's the most cost-effective solution for the federal taxpayer," Robertson said. "I don't think the BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure Commission] process considers other issues like affordable housing, air quality and transportation."

The Washington regional planning agency is racing to get a handle on the traffic shifts and other potential impacts of the base realignment so that local officials there can attempt to influence it before it's completed.

The regional planning counterpart for Baltimore apparently hasn't given the issue much thought yet.

"It's so fresh and new, we really haven't played that scenario out," said Harvey S. Bloom, transportation director for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group that advocates development in and around cities to reduce traffic and the loss of open space, said: "What we've done is take those people who are largely on transit and move them to nontransit spots. That's not going the right direction."

Washington and Baltimore are already among the most traffic-clogged cities in the country. Capital-area residents had the third-longest commutes, and Baltimore the 17th-longest, in the latest survey by the Texas Transportation Institute. Both areas also suffer from unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution in summer, much of it from automobile emissions.

"It's one thing to close a base and try to find a way to reuse it, but it's another to reshuffle the employment and put it into places that aren't prepared to take it," said Arthur Nelson, associate director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, a development research center in Alexandria.

One of those places is Fort Belvoir in Virginia, about 16 miles south of the district, which would receive 18,000 relocated workers under the Pentagon plan. With 24,000 already working there, the base is the largest employer in Fairfax County. Elected officials representing the county have said the roads serving the base are already inadequate.

The Metro rail system might be able to extend its Blue Line five to eight miles south from Springfield to serve Fort Belvoir, a transit agency spokeswoman said. But the projected cost, based on a study done a few years ago, was $600 million to $800 million.

In Maryland, James F. Ports Jr., deputy transportation secretary, said the state is working on plans for road widening and other upgrades to improve access to military bases.

Ports said state officials would work with local representatives to address the congestion that might come from increased traffic at Fort Meade, which is projected to add 5,361 jobs, and Aberdeen, which is expected to gain 2,176 jobs.

But transit is likely to be more limited at both bases. Though Aberdeen and Fort Meade lie along Maryland's MARC commuter rail line from Perryville to Washington, the state-run service is straining to handle only a fraction of the riders Washington's Metro network does, according to Eugene Peterson, president of the Transit Riders League. Trains are crowded and breakdowns too frequent, he contends.

"You start adding a few more bodies to a service that's already taxed, and you've got a problem," said Peterson, who predicted that the jobs shift would add to the region's traffic gridlock if MARC and other transit options are not beefed up to serve the bases.

Gerrit Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that while the base realignment no doubt disrupts the plans local officials have made to manage their communities' growth, it doesn't have to be disastrous.

"It just highlights the need for regional planning," Knaap said. "And the sooner we prepare ourselves to meet that need, the better off we're going to be."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad