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Another BRAC?

When word came down that U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wants to do another BRAC, the comment was greeted with measured enthusiasm at the Harford County Development Advisory Board meeting last week.

By and large, optimism was expressed that follows the line because Aberdeen Proving Ground has a lot of territory relative to the size of the area occupied by buildings, the post is a prime destination spot for various military components that end up being relocated and consolidated from elsewhere in the country. What ends up being economic bad news for one community ends up being good news, economically speaking, in Harford County and elsewhere in the vicinity of APG.

Optimism relating to APG's available space and proximity to the nation's capital and the Pentagon, however, was tempered by the harsh reality that the traffic access situation for Aberdeen Proving Ground, to borrow an old Army recruiting slogan, is not all that it can be.

In its increasingly shrinking former incarnation as a major tank and artillery testing ground, the Aberdeen post was long on land for ranges and barracks for enlisted personnel. The need for civilians to get onto and off of post, though substantial, didn't compare with that of more densely populated installations.

It is worth noting that the National Security Agency's massive campus at Ft. Meade in northern Anne Arundel County, has its own exit ramp complex on the Baltimore Washington Parkway. The exit is something of a Maryland legend for its having once cryptically marked that it wasn't for public use back in the days when people working for NSA were not allowed to say anything about their jobs beyond that they worked for the government, prompting the wry observation that NSA stood for Never Say Anything.

As things stand, one of the things that puts APG in the running for being at the receiving end of a new round of base closings and realignments is that Ft. Meade is, in practical terms, at capacity even as there's plenty of space at Aberdeen.

It may turn out that the availability of land at Aberdeen Proving Ground is a plus, but it was also noted last week that APG has a major drawback insofar as it lacks anything approximating an exit ramp cloverleaf off I-95. Going back a generation to the 1970s when the post was at a high point in tank testing, traffic was notorious in the mornings and evenings as the drag race from the various gates across Aberdeen to I-95 clogged relatively narrow roads. The Route 22-Aberdeen Bypass helped, but even after the RIFs (reductions in force) of the 1980s, the Route 22-Beards Hill Road area remained a place to avoid after about 4:27 p.m. on weekdays.

And in those days, a substantial portion of the APG workforce lived on post.

The recently completed BRAC round has transformed APG into a place that, like Ft. Meade, has a lot of civilians and relatively few people in uniform, which is to say, a lot of commuters. This transformation was anticipated, and there was a lot of talk about improving the road and rail systems supporting Aberdeen Proving Ground. There also has been some action, as improvements are being made to access from Route 40 to Aberdeen Proving Ground. Still, the ride from I-95 to post that takes less than 15 minutes at night when there's no traffic is anticipated, without substantial improvements to the roadways linking the post to the interstate, to take three times that long in a few years

Maybe the solution to improving access to Aberdeen Proving Ground is not to build a dedicated NSA-style exit ramp system on I-95, but something almost as drastic probably is called for if the post is to be considered for substantial expansion in a new round of BRAC. A major reworking of the exits at Routes 22 and 543, combined with substantial upgrades to Route 40 and probably major new access roads to both the Edgewood and Aberdeen areas of the post are certainly worthy of consideration, regardless of whether another round of BRAC is in the offing. Moreover, these roadway projects need to be paid for with a much larger infusion of federal money than was forthcoming for infrastructure in the last BRAC round.

If the access problem for Aberdeen Proving Ground isn't dealt with in a substantially more robust way in the next few years — a BRAC round in 2013 notwithstanding — the day will come when the Harford post is regarded as being an inferior location because of access issues. When that day is followed by another round of base closing and realignment, Aberdeen Proving Ground and Harford County could end up facing the harsh economic reality that BRAC may have given, but it can also take away.

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